The key thing to know going into “Her,” Spike Jonze’s beautifully rendered futuristic romance, is that the gender-specific nature of the pronoun is deliberate.
Since one of the two main figures in this romance is not a person, but a computer operating system, one might think of this figure as an “it.” But for so many reasons — the least of them the sultry, soulful voice of Scarlett Johansson — this character is fiercely female.
The character chooses for herself the name Samantha, moments after being switched on by Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a morose writer in the midst of a divorce who has trouble making real connections with people. He’s not the only one, as evidenced by his job writing personal letters commissioned by other people.
Samantha turns out to be just what, and who, Theodore needs in his life. She’s inquisitive and insightful, reading his emails and deducing the recent breakup. She anticipates his needs and desires. She’s ravenously curious and revels when Theodore walks around his near-future Los Angeles, letting her experience it all through his mobile device (which he carries in a shirt pocket, set so the lens can capture the world around him).
Soon, Theodore and Samantha are in something of a relationship. How much of one is debated by those around him. His ex-wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), thinks it’s ludicrous for a man to say he’s in love with a machine. His boss, Paul (Chris Pratt), is cool with it and suggests a double date. But the limits of the relationship become clear when Samantha suggests hiring a surrogate (Portia Doubleday) to allow their union to take on a physical dimension.
Then there’s the philosophical approach, provided by Amy (Amy Adams), Theodore’s married best friend. It’s a somewhat frazzled Amy who comes to believe that whom you love isn’t the point, but how much. “Falling in love is a crazy thing to do,” Amy observes. “It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.”
That’s just one epiphany in Jonze’s script, which is loaded with them. Jonze doesn’t just build a scenario for romantic drama, but gets to the core of what we mean when we talk about love. In the relationship between Theodore and Samantha, he gives us the perfect metaphor for exploring what love can be — two beings finding common ground, overcoming their differences and learning to adapt (or not) to the other as each grows and changes.
Jonze (“Being John Malkovich,” “Where the Wild Things Are”) tones down his usual whimsy, but still creates a fully realized world that’s just a degree off kilter. The future apparently is devoid of cars but ample with high-waisted pants, and technology is so ubiquitous that only its sudden absence is noticed. In other words, it’s us now — or in about 20 minutes.
Phoenix gives one of his best performances, and does so by quieting his more actorly impulses. His Theodore is thoroughly normal, which is what makes his unusual romance feel so authentic. Meanwhile, Johansson shows that all it takes is a voice to convey a wide range of emotions, and she makes “Her” engage not only the brain but the heart.
A man starts talking to, and falling in love with, his computer operating system in Spike Jonze’s beautifully off-kilter romance.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity.
Running time • 126 minutes.