Film Review: Her

Singularly brilliant concept makes for a highly intriguing viewing experience until it begins to peter out towards the end.

In not-so-distant future Los Angeles, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is seriously depressed. About to be divorced from his beautiful wife (Rooney Mara), he toils as a Cyrano-esque ghostwriter of love letters to other people for a company specializing in just that service. There's a definite void in his life, but it’s soon filled by Samantha aka OS1 (Scarlett Johansson). She is no regular girl—in fact, she is not a girl at all, but a voice on the latest, supposedly greatest artificial intelligence operating system. At first installed in Theodore's head to organize his life, her warmly nurturing presence soon becomes indispensable to him, and from that romantic feelings grow. She seems to dig him, too, and Theodore is floating on air until the inevitable realization about who—or what—exactly Samantha is finally becomes apparent to him.

Working for the first time from his own original script, director Spike Jonze creates a striking, sleekly designed dystopian world that, however stylized it may be with its scarily clean, even sterile environs (some of the film was shot in China) and its men dressed similarly in weirdly high-waisted slacks, seems frighteningly not all that removed from today. You wonder if he drew inspiration for Her from watching so many people unquestioningly going through their daily lives, jabbering away to "nobody," aka whoever is on the other side of their ubiquitous ear-buds. It's a fiendishly clever concept, his most satisfying outing since the brilliant Being John Malkovich, rife with droll moments and real surprise. But, unfortunately, the movie loses steam mostly due to the concept of Theodore's character, who, as played by the ever-unpredictable Phoenix—who, with Gladiator and The Master has already played all kinds of crazy—is too passive the eternal sufferer to sustain our interest with all of his incessant moroseness, which after a while begins to seem like some dully repeated joke. By this point, you can almost play the same cinematic parlor game with Phoenix as you used to be able to do with Jennifer Jones: Name one movie in which this actor was normal.

An attractive cast ably fleshes things out. Amy Adams is very sympathetic and—blessedly—normal-seeming as Twombly's ever-platonic best friend, although it is probably she he should have ended up with. Mara has a nicely biting scene with Phoenix, and her acrid prettiness and attitude go a long way towards explaining how he got to be the way he is. Olivia Wilde also gets laughs as one-half of an initially lovely date that suddenly goes straight to hell.

But it is Scarlett Johansson who is the film's real coup. Although it’s only a vocal performance, talk has been bandied about for best acting awards for her, and indeed her fetchingly husky tones have never been more suggestive or alluring than they are here. One could easily fall in love with a voice like that, coupled with so much genuine empathy and sage advice. And when things start to go south because of Theodore's incessant need to cross boundaries with who and what she is, the distraught, dripping sadness in her voice is quite heartbreaking.