You’ve heard of fables for our time? “Her” is a fable for the very near future, and it may haunt you with memories still to come. The film takes place 20 or so years from now, when pants are higher, no one seems to wear belts, and we talk to our electronic devices without thinking twice about it. In this final triumph of the digital, analog has acquired an air of nostalgia, so an information age worker bee like Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) can earn a living at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. There he speaks sentences and sentiments out loud for clients who can’t think up their own and watches the words appear onscreen in “personalized” cursive.
Theodore’s very good at his job: He has more than a touch of the poet and his separation from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), has brought out his tenderness along with the glooms. Amy (Amy Adams), an artist friend who lives on another floor of his antiseptic Los Angeles apartment tower, invites Theodore to a party, hoping to see “the old fun you, not the sad mopey you.”
“Her” is written and directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich,” “Where the Wild Things Are”) with a cool, sympathetic eye to a society just over the horizon. Like everyone else, Theodore wears an earbud that allows him to interact with his handheld computer, whose voice is pleasantly generic as it obeys his instructions to read news stories or delete e-mails. Intrigued by an ad, Theodore downloads the latest thing: OS1, the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system. Almost by chance, he requests that it be given a female voice. And so from the binary half shell steps Samantha, a bodyless presence who speaks in the engaging, down-to-earth tones of Scarlett Johansson.
“Her” is a love story about a man and his computer, and while it could have been a horror movie, a farce, a sermon, or a disaster, it is none of those things. It is a love story. Also a profoundly metaphysical meditation on what it means to be human. Also one of the more touchingly relevant movies to the ways we actually live and may soon live. Oh, and the year’s best film, or at least the one that may stick with you until its story line comes true.
Theodore quickly comes to accept “Sam” as eerily close to real, and we do too. She has a sense of humor, a way with irony, a killer laugh, and she can organize 10 years of his e-mail within a handful of CPU cycles. She gets his jokes and calls him on his nonsense, and because she’s always learning, she’s always curious. Of course she’d become a guy’s best friend, and then maybe his most cherished companion, and then maybe something more.
Yes, there’s sex, but “Her” gets the queasy stuff out of the way fairly early, and, anyway, as Theodore has already learned in a chatroom scene gone hilariously wrong (the voice on the other end of the line belongs to Kristen Wiig), humans appear to have lost the knack for intimacy, even simple connection. What a surprise: Communicating with people through machines ends up making you more comfortable with machines than people. It’s not Sam’s fault that she’s at ease with herself, in direct contrast to Theodore’s blind date, a charming, nerve-jangling neurotic played at lightning speed by Olivia Wilde.
Eventually and gingerly, Theodore goes public with his new relationship, and the strangest part is that, aside from his horrified ex-wife and the quizzically accepting Amy, no one bats an eye. (There’s a picnic double date with a co-worker that has to be seen to be believed.) In one quietly devastating scene, the hero sits on the subway steps and watches the passing throng, each man and woman gesticulating and talking to the soul mate in his or her ear. It’s the logical extension of Bluetooth Nation.
“Her” could have been an anti-technology screed, and a lot of people would be nodding their heads in agreement. It’s something wiser and longer lasting: a gentle and sorrowful rumination on our uneasiness with the actualities of love — how we think we’re seeking love when we really just crave attention. In the future, “Her” says, there’ll be an app for that, and the reason Theodore feels so relaxed with Sam, ultimately, is that he owns her; he’s her registered user. (More than one female acquaintance has wondered what “Her” would look like as “Him”; i.e., with the genders reversed. Probably quite different and a lot more hardheaded, if it was made at all. Can someone — maybe Jonze’s ex-wife Sofia Coppola — get on this?)
The story acquires more layers as Sam grows in emotional experience and begins to act like a partner with her own needs. In the creepiest, most despairing scene in “Her,” she reaches out to a young woman (Portia Doubleday) who agrees to act as a sex surrogate for Sam and Theodore; he’ll get to experience a real body (with Sam’s voice in his ear) and the girl will sample the couple’s real emotions. This doesn’t end well for anybody, and it’s the scene where Jonze and company peer most deeply into the hall of mirrors — the emotional hell — of where our technology may be taking us.
As filmmaking, “Her” is a delicate masterpiece, shot in fluid, day-after-tomorrow colors and featuring a brooding/beautiful pop score by Arcade Fire and other like-minded bands. Also, it’s official: Joaquin Phoenix is one of the very best movie actors we have. He lost a lot of people (most, actually) with the persona pranks of “I’m Still Here” and won some back with the brute animal force of his Freddie Quell in “The Master.” Phoenix’s work here is both astounding on a technical level — his character is deeply in love with a person who doesn’t exist — and a simple, empathetic piece of decency and heartbreak. Theodore is eloquent with everyone’s emotions but his own. The technology that lets him connect with everyone on Earth has left him more isolated than ever.
This is a point of no small importance at the moment, especially to younger viewers who will be Theodore and his friends in a couple of decades. (Translation: Take your teenagers.) “Her” rolls on several steps beyond that, though, as if Jonze wanted to tease out every variation on his theme; if this makes the film long, it also makes it worth it. Sam may not be a real person but she’s a real something, and Johansson gives a genuine, oddly moving performance as a consciousness coming into its own. (Her own? Their own?) What would happen if our machines outgrew us, the film wonders, the way one lover can move on from another? Where would they move on to? “Her” leads us gently up the slope of metaphysics to the very edge of the cliff, and then it leaves us there with no one to talk to but ourselves.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.