“All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?”
— The Beatles
If Paul McCartney wrote those words today, you’d have to wonder if Eleanor Rigby might come home from the church and spend her evenings watching cat videos on YouTube. And if he wrote it 30 years from now, maybe no one would be picking up the rice at all because Eleanor might be spending all of her lonely hours chatting up an artificially intelligent computer program.
That is the premise of the brilliant new movie “Her” by writer and director Spike Jonze. Set some indeterminate time in the future, we meet sad-sack Theodore (Joaquin Pheonix, in what is unquestionably his most tender role to date), who works at BeautifullyHandwrittenLetters.com where he writes deeply personal and romantic love notes for complete strangers.
Theodore is going through a divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), and while he does have some friends, like his equally-maudlin college pal, Amy (Amy Adams), he mostly just goes home to play video games or find virtual hook-ups in random online chat rooms.
Things change when Theodore buys a brand new artificially intelligent operating system. When asked if he wants his system to have a male or female voice, he chooses female and is greeted by Samantha (the sultry voice of Scarlett Johansson).
At first, Samantha is more like a secretary, sorting his emails and proofreading his letters, but with no one else to talk to at night but her, Theodore finds he is coming more out of his shell while Samantha develops more of a personality and a wonder at the world she has found herself in.
The two then begin to fall in love, which lets Jonze play around with all kinds of deep questions like: “What is love?” “What is it that makes us who we are?” “Can there be intimacy without physical contact?” “Wouldn’t it be nice to unplug your significant other?”
Jonze purposefully avoids the temptation to wade into the deep end of the sci-fi pool to consider the implications of unleashing a host of independently-minded, superiorly-intelligent entities on society, simply because that’s not the kind of movie this is.
“Her” is, at its heart, a simple love story that’s been done six ways from Sunday. Jonze doesn’t want you actively thinking about all the big-time questions he’s raising here. He wants you invested in Theodore and Samantha’s relationship. You can be haunted on your own time, pondering our bond with technology and what it means for the future of humanity.
That’s why the movie “Her” reminds me the most of isn’t “The Terminator,” but the old Ernest Borgnine movie “Marty,” about a lonesome, middle-aged butcher who finds an unlikely love.
Phoenix is a revelation in this film as he reveals so many layers of vulnerability that if he was standing in the lobby after the movie, you’d want to go give him a hug. And then there’s that voice. Johansson is an actress best known for her physicality, but the range of emotion she’s able to project makes her easy to fall in love with. The movie just doesn’t work without her.
“Her” is an excellent movie that can be enjoyed on so many levels and it has so much to say about not only who we are but where we are headed.
It’s one of those movies you could write a graduate thesis on, but I’ll just leave it at this: It’s one of the best films of the year (I’m tacking it on to 2013 since it opened then in New York and L.A.) and should be seen with the special someone in your life —just be sure you’ve plugged them in first.
“Her” is rated R for language, sexual content, and brief graphic nudity.