Her strains to connect

Joaquin Phoenix finds love in the digital age
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The terrible reality of modern life is that even beautiful young people on a first date can't go a whole evening without checking their phones. We need to be potentially connected to every possibility at all times. That's the idea Spike Jonze is scratching at in his futuristic romance Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, an about-to-be-divorced Los Angeles writer who falls in love with an operating system, one designed not only to run his laptop and devices but to help him get through life; it intuits and meets his every need. That setup might sound weirder than it is: The voice of this OS — she calls herself Samantha — is Scarlett Johansson's, and if you heard it, shimmering into your brain through an earpiece all day, every day, as Theodore does, you'd fall in love with it, too.

In case you haven't guessed, Theodore is using technology to avoid the pain of real human connection. And that's the problem with Her, too: Jonze is so entranced with his central conceit that he can barely move beyond it. This is a movie about a benumbed person that itself feels chloroformed, zonked out, even in those moments when Jonze is clearly striving for depth of feeling. Instead of just being desperately heartfelt, Her keeps reminding us — through cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema's somber-droll camera work, through Phoenix's artfully slumped shoulders — how desperately heartfelt it is.

Theodore knows, just as you do, that real-life relationships are messier than anything we can channel through a handheld device. He still misses his soon-to-be-ex-wife (a desperately human prickly pear played by Rooney Mara), and his close platonic confidant (a colorlessly likable Amy Adams) has plenty of troubles of her own. But he just can't help his infatuation with Samantha. She isn't supposed to have feelings, but thanks to some miracle of science, she returns Theodore's affections. The two embark on rambling adventures through the city — Theodore tucks the Samantha-pod device in his shirt pocket, so she can peek out at the world through a little lens. She's a girlfriend you can literally keep in your pocket. The relationship is too good, and too wrong, to last.

But even as he acknowledges the uncontrollability of human relationships, Jonze never does anything so passionate as let go. There are many, many feelings stuck into Her, pin-cushion-style, but the result is a kind of overstuffed stupefaction.

Phoenix is sometimes an astonishing actor, and not just when he's playing Johnny Cash; working with director James Gray in particular, in pictures like Two Lovers and We Own the Night, he has given astute, resonant performances, stripped of fussy mannerisms. But in Her, he's a stylized, mumbly drifter, so attached to his performance that he's barely attached to us. Johansson's voice, as plush and light-reflecting as velveteen, is the movie's saving grace; Samantha is the one character in Her who seems capable of delight.

Theodore doesn't know what he wants, and probably fears that even if he knew, he wouldn't be able to get it. What human being hasn't felt that way? But it's hard to respond to onscreen romantic trauma and feelings of disconnection when they're so wan and wispy. There are whole chunks of Her, so arduously layered with soft-focus pain and cautious happiness, that could have been lifted from those '80s phone commercials touting the benefits of "staying connected." Theodore, like James Stewart in Vertigo, is in love with an illusion. The difference is that this spectacle and all its ideas would fit on the screen of your iPod.

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