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Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore in the romantic drama “Her,” directed by Spike Jonze. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore in the romantic drama “Her,” directed by Spike Jonze. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
ArtsRancho Santa Fe

Film review: Something in the way she moves him

The wise and sweet “Her” has more than a few remarkable things to say about love and relationships in a modern world, due in no small part to Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson’s captivating performances.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) writes personal love letters for individuals who find it difficult to express their emotions, but his impending divorce from wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) has left him unhappy and unfulfilled.

His life takes an interesting turn when he purchases an artificially intelligent operating system, which calls itself “Samantha.”

Apparently Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is designed to satisfy his emotional needs, evolving in a manner not unlike how a human develops through learning. As they spend time together and reflect on topics related to love and life, Theodore finds that he’s falling in love with Samantha, discovering happiness in the most unexpected of forms.

It seems moviegoers these days just can’t get enough of unorthodox romance stories; we have recent first-rate titles such as “Ruby Sparks” and “Much Ado About Nothing” to thank for that. And now, we can add “Her” to that club. The movie offers audiences a compelling, thoughtful perspective on the ever-changing nature of love when it involves technology.

Director Spike Jonze captures the story’s delicate beauty right from the start as we meet Phoenix’s Theodore, who reveals his expertise in writing love letters and the pain he feels from knowing his wife doesn’t love him anymore.

During that concise introduction, Phoenix quickly establishes the fact that his character has a lot of hurt inside him, yet possesses a gentle heart that’s looking for the emotional fulfillment he once had.

Sure, he does have friends, including a delightful neighbor (Amy Adams), but there’s clearly something missing in his life.

Dialogue plays an integral role in creating that deeply personal feeling we experience when love takes hold of our mind and body and, in Johansson’s case, soul.

The moment she, as Samantha, enters the picture, all expectations regarding how she should speak and behave are discarded. The two share conversations and interact as though they were physically together.

Even though Johansson has only her voice to convey Samantha’s growing feelings, quirks and beliefs, she manages to imbue the character with a sexy complexity.

I especially appreciated the immediate chemistry between Phoenix and Johansson; there were equal amounts of amusement, euphoria and melancholy all rolled into one credible relationship. It’s interesting how this morose, thoughtful man falls in love with this energetic female voice, which poses significant questions about what it means to understand someone’s feelings and the multiple ways in which love transforms you, for better or worse.

Another plus factor worth noting is the fact that this film is actually about three stories united as one, connected to each other by the joy and anguish that comes with love. Jonze has his attention on Theodore’s romance with Samantha, but devotes equal screen time to his close friendship with Amy and his past life with Catherine — all weaved together with seemingly little effort (though I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to nail the screenplay).

And right at the moment this intimate journey comes to an end, I couldn’t help but feel elated at having given “Her” a chance.

Without spoiling anything, I was surprised and delighted at how Jonze’s love story turned out, leaving me with no hint of disappointment or frustration; it’s no wonder why it’s garnered so many accolades from critics and festivals already.

MPAA rating: Rated R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity.
Run time:  2 hours and 6 minutes
Playing:  In general release