Strange as it seems — and inherently is, on various levels — Spike Jonze’s latest concoction, Her, still qualifies as that most basic of movies: It’s a love story and one of the more affecting models of that genre among this year’s movie crop. Of course, the Jonze-ing angle on love falls from a cinematic tree that has spawned the surreal and eccentric treats Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and syncs up with one character’s appraisal of this thing called love as “socially acceptable insanity.” But what makes Her so remarkable is the palpable emotional heart beating beneath its absurdist sci-fi premise.
From the opening scene, we get a bold taste of the themes of love — finding it, keeping it, figuring out what it is — in an age of empowered digitalization. Our sweetly melancholic and hapless hero (Joaquin Phoenix, in yet another stunning and detailed performance) exercises his emotional sensitivity and natural writing chops by working for “BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com,” crafting “personal” letters for customers.
He’s in recovery from one flesh-and-blood love and suddenly plunged into a new ones-and-zeroes, disembodied love affair with his personalized OS (the breathy-toned and fully engaging voice of Scarlett Johansson, in the voice-over-work wonder of the season). Meanwhile, back in the corporeal, corpuscular, and body-based real world, his friend Amy (Amy Adams, shining in a role the polar opposite from her ’70s con woman in American Hustle) offers prospects for a relationship with actual eye and body contact.
A sleek and subtly CGI-dusted Los Angeles cityscape provides the ideal backdrop for the story, and a bittersweet score by Arcade Fire nicely graces and colors this irrational but moving film. It ends with the anthemic “The Moon Song,” written by Karen (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) O and sung by her and Jonze himself, about a love of the real-time, beating-heart sort, which is also “a million miles away.”
Ten years ago, Jonze divorced filmmaker Sofia Coppola, another quirky specialist in matters of the heady heart, and it is suggested that his own emotional landscape is encoded into the basis of Her. That could explain the magical and empathetic feat of this film, where insanity meets dream logic meets love magnetism — the true-blue, red-blooded, senses-altering stuff.