Joaquin Phoenix delivers a gentle, thoroughly disarming performance in “Her,” a wildly inventive, scrupulously understated romance from Spike Jonze. Set in a Los Angeles that’s been ingeniously photographed to exploit its most futuristic vernacular, “Her” takes place at a time that may be just around the corner, when our virtual lives have merged even more seamlessly with corporeal, real-world experience: Welcome to Earbud Nation.
In this world, computer operating systems are in the throes of becoming exponentially more sophisticated in warp-speed time. When Phoenix’s character, Theodore, takes advantage of the latest upgrade, he finds that his computer is now being run by a charming, Siri-like disembodied voice that calls itself Samantha.
Given beguilingly peppery voice by Scarlett Johansson, Samantha loses no time in seducing the lonely Theodore, who composes heartfelt notes-for-hire at a company called beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, by nights amusing himself with escapist video games and raunchy phone sex. Samantha’s circuitry is sophisticated enough to intuit and evolve according to Theodore’s feedback, so it’s no surprise when he starts to fall in love with her (er, it). What’s surprising is that Jonze has taken what could easily have been a glib screwball comedy and infused it instead with wry, observant tenderness and deep feeling.
Then again, it’s not that surprising. Jonze, after all, brought similar sensitivity to “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” But “Her” is something special even for this gifted director’s idiosyncratic oeuvre. Jonze has always possessed a meticulous, curatorially expressive visual sense, and here his talents are particularly sharp: He films Los Angeles in neutral tones of blue and gray, with pops of bright red (including Theodore’s shirt) providing startling slashes of contrast. That sensibility extends to his clever, even ingenious script, in which he builds an utterly convincing interior and exterior world for Theodore and Samantha to inhabit. Unlike “Ted” or “Minority Report,” each of which has something in common with “Her,” Jonze’s film doesn’t make the comedic conceit or technology the focus. Rather, he’s interested in alienation (like so many of his filmmaking peers this year), and the role that projection plays in constructing love, desire and identity itself.
Theodore and Samantha exist in a city full of people being alone together, a familiar backdrop at a time when it’s common to see four people share a dinner table, their eyes glued to four iPhones. So the prime obstacles that inevitably emerge in “Her” aren’t what you think they’ll be, and the movie winds up being continually more surprising as it follows its quirky, often amusing, course.
Phoenix has effectively banished the bearded eccentric he was playing on the talk show circuit just a few years ago; mustached and bespectacled, he delivers a quietly heroic, even Chaplinesque turn as an Everyman contemplating the nature of the self and the soul that lies within. At its core, “Her” is about listening, and both Phoenix and Johansson — who delivers an astonishing vocal performance — make that experience anything but passive.
Theodore joins a crowded gallery of protagonists — most of them male — who this year have been battling loneliness and isolation on screen; “Her” may be the most intellectually inquiring of these smart, observant movies, as Jonze teases out what’s genuine emotion and what’s just programming. “Her” occurs in what Jonze calls the “slight future,” but that’s clearly a question for the ages.
R. At Angelika Film Center, Landmark’s Bethesda Row and Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains profanity, sexual content and brief graphic nudity. 126 minutes.