Movie review: A romantic web is woven in 'Her'

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"Her" is a love story for our time. Or the near future just around the bend.

That's when beautiful handwritten letters are a cherished commodity and you can hire someone to craft one for you. When Los Angeles streets have been cleared of car clutter, video games are holographic, everyone has an earpiece connected to a computer or mobile device, and an advanced operating system makes Siri seem like child's play.

Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore makes his living writing personal letters for other people but leads a lonely existence -- until he orders an artificially intelligent operating system. She (you never think of the voice as an "it," thanks to Scarlett Johansson) read a book with 180,000 names for babies in a fraction of a second and christened herself Samantha.


Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, voice of Scarlett Johansson..

Rating: R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity.

She tells Theo, "In every moment, I'm evolving, just like you." He starts off by observing, "Well, you seem like a person, but you're just a voice on a computer." As she helps to organize his life and return joy, passion and possible heartbreak to him, she becomes so much more.

He falls in love with her in a conceit that sounds crazier than the one in "I'm Still Here," in which Mr. Phoenix announced he was reinventing himself as a hip-hop musician. That was a hoax and mockumentary; this is a tender romance between man and, technically, machine told with great sincerity. (That doesn't stop you from periodically thinking, "Uh, this is sort of weird!")

The sophisticated Samantha is intuitive and insatiably curious, wondering, "What's it like to be alive in that room right now?" He ruefully says, "Sometimes I think I've felt anything I'm ever gonna feel. From here on out."

"Her," written and directed by Spike Jonze, whose credits include the mind-bending "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," tracks their relationship with all of its human emotions, from giddy infatuation to jealousy, and introduces other flesh-and-blood characters along the way. Among them are Amy Adams and Matt Letscher as married neighbors; Rooney Mara as Theo's estranged wife, a neuroscientist; Chris Pratt as a congenial co-worker; and Olivia Wilde as a blind date who seems too good to be true.

A mustachioed bespectacled Mr. Phoenix plays another lost soul but as a wounded introvert who is a cross between a regular guy and soulful oddball while Ms. Johansson brings a sexy crackle, sensitivity and intelligence to the voice of Samantha.

Set in LA but filmed there and in the Pudong District near Shanghai, "Her" seems both familiar and unfamiliar, from the high-waisted, beltless slacks for men to the subway leading to the beach and the earpieces that look like a squared-off cross between the old earphones for transistor radios -- but cordless -- and the top of a chess piece.

Theo's apartment is lined with glass windows, which show the glittering city within reach and yet at a distance, emphasizing his isolation. When he's at his happiest, he is photographed in warm light, as when he's bathed by sunshine on the sand.

The ending isn't as strong as what's come before, but "Her" poses questions about intimacy, real and learned emotions, the evolution of a relationship and what technology can -- or should -- supply to men and women.

Plus, it asks, is it better to have loved and lost than never to have listened at all?

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:

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