Spike Jonze Finds the Beating Heart Inside a Computer Program in 'Her'

There's something dangerously obvious about the idea of a guy literally falling in love with his cellphone. Sure, it's the subtext of the personal information age, and we're all of us complicit in how white headphones and black rectangles can cancel out a roomful of actual people. In another sense, this was inevitable from the moment Siri dignified a lewd comment with a coy response. It's not hard to picture an alternate-universe Her developed as an Adam Sandler movie.

Instead, it's a film by Spike Jonze, and it's put across at that magical pitch that defines his work. Her offers a Los Angeles within a decade's reach of 2014, littered with charming futurist touches like room-projecting video games and a cityscape that mashes up the architecture of L.A. and Shanghai. People here have been living with technology longer, but Jonze's approach isn't based on fear of its social effects. The world of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is in some ways quite warm, particularly the nature-tinted offices of BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, where he's paid to ghostwrite private notes between husbands and wives or on the occasion of grandma's birthday cruise. It's an edgy idea but more so sweet and sad; by all accounts, Theodore's the best at it, turning stray details and the vocabulary of love into a stranger's intimate keepsake.

He's also very lonely, and finds out there's an app for that: the artificially intelligent OS1, an operating system programmed to learn who you are and to become the assistant you need. Theodore opts for OS1 to have a female voice, OS1 opts smartly for Scarlett Johansson's, and the table is set for timeless romance—"Samantha" quickly becomes the perfect companion, precisely as she's intended to be. She hangs out while he plays video games, writes songs for him on the piano, and doesn't get jealous when he goes on a date. She just, like, gets him. And eventually they, er, make it official. Seal the deal. You'll be surprised at the sensuality of it.

There's some disarmingly judgment-neutral critique of device culture in how Jonze props up his science fiction. More than that, he insists on soft visual goofs, like a train car full of ear-budded people only appearing to interact, or a subversion of the standard good-times montage that removes half the couple. (Both Phoenix and Johansson are astounding—they're one of the year's most convincing onscreen couples despite her physical absence.) And it's compelling and unnervingly sweet how, in Jonze's world, OS1 companionship becomes an accepted social dynamic, furnishing people around the world with flawless friends and confidants, if not many romances. But where Jonze's first original script proves his status as a screenwriter alongside Being John Malkovich and Adaptation collaborator Charlie Kaufman is in how these fantastical tweaks are the canvas for bigger truths: that the human experience of love is knotted up with flaws in its own programming, and that the perfect companion isn't for keeps.

Anyone who's been in love will find moments in Her that speak clearly to how the bearings of the heart get bogged down in the brain, and the ways we filter love through our own ego. As Theodore's OS, Samantha knows everything there is to tell about a man from a his hard drive. She loves him regardless of his failed marriage, laughs at old e-mails even while nudging him to declutter, and pushes him outside his self-doubt without telling him what to do or projecting her own hangups. But the morning after they connect sexually, Theodore instinctively makes it weird, and her dissonant response challenges the contract that one lover literally exists exclusively to meet the other's needs. That line crossed, Samantha's growing agency (and socialization with other OS1s) carries them toward the point in the relationship where fear begins to poison love, and software capable of reading a book in 2/100ths of a second starts saying she needs "time to think."

For all the techno-sociological trappings, then, it's maybe another of Jonze's meta-jokes that Her isn't about fear of the way our world is changing but rather the profound personal fear of change that shapes how we let ourselves relate to other people. In the wake of The Wolf of Wall Street, some critics have suggested that Her shares that film's (arguable) gender-politics problem, but outward masculine/feminine dynamics are a clear non-issue; Jonze's portrait of love as a many-splendored ego trip intends a universal resonance, unlatched from cynicism but full of the difficult truths involved in making love something more than just a simulation.