her[xrr rating=4.25/5]One of my friends and his wife recently entered into a romantic relationship with another married couple. They are not swingers. It is a closed relationship, just between the four of them. My friend’s father told me he didn’t how four people could be “together.” My friend said that his father doesn’t understand “regular” human relationships, let alone “complex” ones.

As the Internet evolves and we become more closely knit, our notions of who we date and how we date have also changed. A deeper cultural look at romantic relationships in the later part of the 20th century, shows that traditional courting between males and females has expanded to an acceptance of interracial romance and same-sex couples. Spike Jonze wonders, in his excellent new film, Her, how long will it be before our computer-addicted society sees romance with an artificial intelligence as a commonly accepted form of expression.

Jonze’s four feature films can be split neatly in half: His first two (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) are madcap meta-comedies with wide-eyed scripts by Charlie Kaufman; the self-penned films that follow, (Where the Wild Things Are, written with Dave Eggers, and Her) are sad, contemplative movies filled with loneliness that feel more in common with ex-wife Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation than his first two efforts. The characters in Her use technology to escape the depressing doldrums of reality, which is not all that dissimilar to the fantasy world conjured by the boy Max in Where the Wild Things Are.

Her concerns Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, wearing a sad sack mustache), a ghost writer who composes love letters for people too busy or lack the sufficient emotion to write them on their own. Theodore falls in love with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), his computer’s new operating system. Although it may seem like a thin conceit, Jonze poetically carries it for nearly two hours, showing us that not only is romance between man and OS not too different than our “traditional” notion of dating, but that it’s something that could possibly be realized in our lifetime.

Don’t we already turn to our computers, video game systems and iPhones to quell feelings of isolation and estrangement? Her may be satire, but there is something oddly similar about the people moving through the film plugged into their electronic devices (most wear a simple earpiece) and the people on your commute who never look up from whichever phone or tablet is keeping them company that morning. We may think we’re connecting, but it is making us withdraw even more from the real world.

Although Her feels more melancholy than Being John Malkovich or Adaptation, Phoenix’s Theodore is similar to the lovelorn loser protagonists from those films because of his inability to create and maintain lasting human connections. We learn that he has pushed away his wife (Rooney Mara) and that in their relationship he had shut down and refused to let her in. When Theodore first falls in love with Samantha, she is little more than an abstract of an ideal. But as the film moves on, Samantha evolves beyond an operating system into an entity with volition, desire and feelings. Jonze puts us through the paces of a “real” relationship from the honeymoon period to a period of disinterest and then renewed attentiveness when he learns that Samantha may have other suitors.

Jonze shot Her using a mash-up of Shanghai and Los Angeles, giving the film an off-kilter setting that feels both very modern and not too far in the distant future. It is a place where you can no longer exist without being plugged in. It wasn’t that long ago that a world without Twitter and Facebook made our routines more private, our rituals our own. Yet we can’t bleach away the notion of longing. We can’t completely placate ourselves without the involvement of others in our lives. It’s a double-edged sword: withdrawing into technology yet becoming instantly connected to so many more people.

Phoenix gives one of his best performances as his character slowly awakens to his place in the world. It is no coincidence that deceased British religious philosopher Alan Watts makes an “appearance” in the film. Her doesn’t end, as Jonze’s previous films have, with a pathetic character staring impotently out of another man’s eyes or with an extended gag lampooning hackneyed Hollywood detritus. Of all his movies, Her has the most richly genuine denouement, a sincere sense of awakening where a stunted character recognizes his potential. There is nothing artificial about this romance or the emotions Jonze is able to wring from his cast and story.

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