“Sometimes I feel like I’ve felt everything I’m going to feel,” says Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely man living a quiet life in a slightly futuristic Los Angeles. This sort of soulful utterance, in a romantic comedy, is generally whispered softly to a love interest, perhaps under cover of night. In Spike Jonze’s wonderful “Her,” a romantic comedy unlike any rom-com you’ve ever seen, Theodore is indeed speaking to his lover, sharing his fears and his dreams. The twist? His loved one, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), is an operating system.
That’s the joke of “Her,” and yet what’s so winning about this movie is that it isn’t played as a joke. Theodore, a recent divorcee who works at a company called Beautiful HandwrittenLetters.com (he writes wistful love letters for clients), is a bit of a lost soul – until one day, he installs new software and hears Samantha’s voice: warm, engaging, light as sunshine. She takes care of him in a way that touches him, they start talking, and, in the manner of all meet-cute movie couples, they fall in love. “Are these things I’m feeling real,” wonders Samantha, “or is it just programming?”
This version of Los Angeles is only slightly different from the current one – fewer cars, computers accessed via compact earpieces, men wearing oddly high-waisted pants – but this version of romantic comedy is something utterly original. Theo wanders the streets alone but not alone, with Samantha in his ear, and they giggle and talk in the twilight just like any couple in love. It’s a perfect relationship, even according to Theodore’s ex (Rooney Mara). “He always wanted a wife,” she notes, “without the challenges of a real person.”
Filmed with a bright crispness that speaks of a nostalgia for the future, “Her” is a touching, buoyant pleasure. You never know where this movie is going (though there are hints, if you’re looking for them), but you want to follow it. Phoenix and Johansson – or, rather, Phoenix’s face and Johansson’s voice – make the year’s oddest movie couple … and, perhaps, the most irresistible.