The great American artist Cy Twombly was known for his beautifully scribbled paintings and drawings. They were mysterious, often indecipherable, and one of his most famous pieces, the 38-part Letter of Resignation, consisted of words written and scratched out, nearly obliterated, its formal frustration pushing its meaning forward.
The aptly named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) understands resignation and broken communication. Separated from his estranged, successful, writer wife (Rooney Mara) but extremely reluctant to sign the divorce papers (when meeting her for lunch for that task he discourages her from rushing into the process), he works for a serenely colorful start-up named BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com where he composes thoughtful, intuitive messages for clients stuck for just the right words. At night he doesn't write anything. He mopes around his upscale, half-empty apartment and plays video games. Then OS1 enters his life.
OS1 is an operating system that thinks and feels (this is the very near future, by the way, a gleaming Los Angeles of high-end design and smooth surfaces, connected by a subway system that everyone uses; also, the men all wear very high-waisted trousers for whatever reason, but it's a nice, odd, touch). It's voiced by Scarlett Johansson and, after devouring a baby names book in a few hundredths of a second, has named itself Samantha. Samantha is alluring from the start, with minimal set-up -- suggesting that yeah, we stupid humans are that simple to figure out -- and immediately, perceptively, she gets under Theodore's skin and gives him what he needs. Soon enough, after a bit of human/machine interaction and, on Samantha's part, enough consumption of information, she and her operator have sex. And yes, writer-director Spike Jonze has found a way through this impossible-to-film scenario with an extremely cool, beguiling and almost old-fashioned use of stark black screen. Next comes love, which makes sex look easy.
The romance that follows is funny and surprising, but mostly it's true. It feels like Jonze has been sitting on this script for a while, learning how to make it sound its most authentic and, simultaneously, its most strange, writing it while paying attention to people as they process the sometimes unmanageable feelings associated with being in love, but with a view toward nudging the audience into a place where none of the techy elements seem that unusual, like it could all be just around the corner and ready to ruin their lives. At one point in the film, Theodore's friend and co-worker, the equally love-challenged Amy (Amy Adams), announces, "Anybody who falls in love is a freak." And because Jonze has built a career around freakiness, not only is Adams correct, she's not even talking about the easiest version of freakishness. In this gently disturbing future, falling in love with your computer doesn't bother anybody. They just ask if you want to double-date. And your computer wants a threeway.
Jonze has accomplished a real feat with Her. His weirdness is muted and the sci-fi aspect of the story wisely avoids trite, contemporary complaints about technology and diconnection and sexting. His attractive vision of the future allows for a mutually beneficial fusion of human and machine but doesn't ignore the inevitable, brain-busting complications from this sort of mixed marriage. And its in sidestepping the typical that he delivers his best film to date, one that burrows into truths about love and its limits, about relationship fragility and the ubiquity of sadness (something he also touched on in Where The Wild Things Are). His people -- and now his "post-verbal" un-people, too -- come together, fail to express themselves simply, follow sometimes futile trajectories, then black it all out with loneliness, longing and regret, feelings that Jonze repurposes as a sort of strange comfort. They may be resigned to repeating the cycle, but they do so beautifully.