In Spike Jonze's remarkable Her, Los Angeles doesn't play itself, and neither does love. A gene splice of America's second largest city and Shanghai, the film's location, like the clothes the story's characters wear and the furniture that decorates their homes, suggests neither yesterday, today, nor tomorrow. Everything, including identity, has the feel of simulation. People here do not work between floors, like Craig Schwartz in Being John Malkovich, yet they're still caught between spaces, psychic and otherwise, and if they don't have to literally escape into fantasy worlds to cope with trauma, like Max in Where the Wild Things Are, it's only because they live in a world where technology has so thoroughly mediated and shaped human interaction that their real lives are already the stuff of fantasy. Sound familiar?
This story of a man, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), who works for BeautifulWrittenLetters.com, where he articulates for lovers old and new the emotions they're unable to, and who falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system, “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson), may sound too flimsy to sustain an entire movie, as well as rife with cynical tendencies, but Jonze has proven time again that frivolity and condescension aren't in his vernacular. As in his great music video for Björk's “Triumph of the Heart,” a poetic rumination on the nature of affection and dependency, Her is a screwball surrealist comedy that asks us to laugh at an unconventional romance while also disarming us with the realization that its fantasy scenario isn't too far from our present reality. Jonze understands all the comforts allowed by our increasing dependency on our own technological advancements, as well as all the feelings of loneliness and alienation that arise from this relationship. With great sadness, this strikingly ephemeral satire regards the way we've become tethered to technology as being possibly past a point of no return, but with intense curiosity, it also asks us to never forget that we're still very much alive.
Like all of Jonze's work, the metaphysically profound Her is rich in alternately wry and depressing details about the human condition. Asked to explain by his co-worker, Paul (Chris Pratt), what he most loves about Samantha, Theodore can only answer in the abstract, understanding as if for the first time that his OS is some elusive object of desire. As Samantha seems to acquire consciousness, some might say agency, he begins to push her away, perhaps how he did his future ex-wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), and his fundamental inability to love a woman, whether she comes in human or binary form, is exposed. And as if on cue, when Samantha reveals her fondness for another OS, modeled after the philosopher Alan Watts, and inexplicably shuts down, he misses her, and his pathetic anxiety feels no different than that of a social-media obsessive freaking out at the sight of a “Twitter is over capacity” page.
There's a great line in the film about none of us being the same as we were a minute ago, which points to the angst one might feel upon realizing that machines are evolving faster than humankind itself, and reveals our nostalgia for a time that was less cluttered with technology and sites like Facebook. And Jonze amusingly conveys how that nostalgia seems hard-wired into our technology, even giving new resonance to the term “motherboard” in two wonderful scenes: in one, a quick question about Theodore's relationship to his mother is all that Samantha, whose boot-screen icon is, tellingly, a Möbius strip, needs to program herself to his liking; in another, one of Theodore's closest friends, Amy (Amy Adams), a wannabe documentarian working on a film about sleep that would make Andy Warhol proud, plays a game that revolves around rewarding the player for being a good mother.
Throughout this incredibly funny and moving whatsit, Jonze articulates how our modern age struggles with sex and, by extension, mortality through emotional transference, which has become, like the way a heartbroken Amy describes love, and how one might diagnose our reliance on social media, as a kind of “socially acceptable insanity.” It's telling that the see-through walls of the elevator that takes Theodore up toward his apartment are lined with the cutouts of long, slender trees. Much later, the snow that falls from the sky above a forest from his distant memory, like the dust that floats around his bedroom, feels alive to him in ways that he'd forgotten. Phoenix conveys this man's awakening, of finally seeing the forest from the trees, with a poignancy that's heartbreaking, and the absurdity of it taking an artificially intelligent operating system for him to realize this spiritual journey is something Jonze presents as altogether sad and universal, and maybe even as proof that there's still hope yet for those who insist on being perpetually plugged-in.