'Her' Review: Spike Jonze's Beautiful, Original Look At Humanity And Love

There's a vast difference between simply making a movie and taking the time to develop a new idea to make a movie about. It's the difference between franchises releasing a new sequel every year, and the work of Spike Jonze, a filmmaker who up to this point has only made three movies in 15 years. His fourth film, Her, is the director's first original screenplay. It's everything you'd hope for from the mad genius who brought to life Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are.

Her is a dramatic sci-fi romance about a man named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his artificially intelligent computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). It's a simple, yet brilliant conceit realized with depth and emotion, two rare traits in mainstream cinema. The depth comes from Jonze's ideas about technological dependence and loneliness, and the emotion is conveyed as the film raises questions about what it means to love and our capacity to do so. It's a film that'll both spark intelligent debate and plenty of tears.

The search for an emotionally fulfilling relationship is one of the few things all humans strive for. Differences develop in how we look for that fulfillment, and with Her, Jonze investigates a new option. What if you could achieve emotional stability on a purely mental level?

Her is set in a futuristic, over-populated Los Angeles. Theodore buys OS 1, a brand-new computer operating system that is artificially intelligent. So, for example, at start-up, the system reads a book in 2 hundredths of a second and names itself Samantha. It can learn, feel, and adapt, yet never assumes physical form. (Jonze gets around this by making computers tiny and accessorized with ear pieces users can wear while walking around.) So when Theodore, who is in the midst of a divorce, meets Samantha, the two become quick friends. Then that becomes something more.

Think about the issues that raises. Do you tell your friends you're dating a computer? How do you have sex? Can you have sex? How smart is this thing? Do you take it on dates? All these questions and more are considered by Jonze's brilliant script, which is filled with the kind of philosophical thought usually reserved for much smaller, less flashy movies. But in Jonze's hands, and in the context of this sprawling and familiar, but definitely futuristicworld, the ideas are easier to digest and ponder.

Eventually, some of these questions become bigger and the movie grows with them. What starts as a boy-meets-computer love story evolves to question the nature of humanity and a person's capacity for emotion, and whether an artificial intelligence can have those traits. Such thoughts are brought to light with the kind of levity and originality we've come to expect from Jonze; they never feel preachy or obvious. The film always feels natural, sweet and relatable.

Credit for that also goes to the actors. Phoenix is awkward and charming. Unlike some of his recent work, though, here he's sweet, bringing a vulnerable humanity to the character. Supporting turns from Amy Adams and Rooney Mara help propel his journey, and Johansson's voice work never makes Theodore's decision seem creepy.

The one, tiny gripe I have about Her is that Jonze raises so many questions, and elicits so many different emotions, it's hard for the film to cohesively bring them all together. Total closure is obviously not the point in such an ambitious work, but there's something to be said for a film that can stick the landing. Her is fantastic, but stumbles every so slightly.

That said, Her is the kind of philosophically complex yet narratively straightforward film audiences can enjoy and scholars can study. It works on nearly every single level and I'm dying to see it again, just to let its ideas wash over me one more time.

/Film rating: 8.5 out of 10

Her opens on a limited basis December 18 then expands January 10. Thanks to the AFI Fest presented by Audi for the screening.