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'Her': The most unusual love story since 'Harold & Maude'

Saturday - 1/11/2014, 6:29am  ET

joaquin.jpg
This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from the film, 'Her.' (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures)

WASHINGTON - What if HAL 9000 was a lover, not a fighter?

Could you fall in love with Siri?

Better yet, could Siri fall in love with you?

That's the bizarre premise of "Her," the latest film from Spike Jonze, who has directed some of the most wonderfully weird movies in recent memory, from "Being John Malkovich" (1999) to "Adaptation" (2002).

While those films were penned by the genius Charlie Kaufman ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"), "Her" is the first original script Jonze has written, attempting a fresh concept rather than adapting a children's storybook like his last project ("Where the Wild Things Are").

The result is a work of brilliance, blurring the lines between science fiction and science fact, between futuristic "what if" and present-day "what is." After all, the concept of falling in love with a computer is not much of a leap from our current world of online dating, mobile apps and Second Life.

Set in the so-called "near future" of Los Angeles, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a talented greeting card writer for the fictional web company BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. He seems to have all the right words for other people's relationships, but can't seem to master his own love life.

Grappling with a divorce from his ex-wife (Rooney Mara), Theodore desperately purchases a piece of state- of-the-art software, which bills itself as the world's first artificially intelligent operating system with the catchy advertisement, "It's more than an operating system. It's a consciousness." But nothing can prepare Theodore for the feelings he develops for the sweet, enthusiastic, hilarious voice on the other end, an artificially intelligent being who goes simply by "Samantha" (Scarlett Johansson).

It's hard to imagine anyone other than Phoenix pulling this off. The man has grown tremendously as an actor over the past 15 years, earning his first Oscar nomination as Commodus in "Gladiator" (2000), his second as Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line" (2005) and his third last year in "The Master" (2012), which would have won him the statue if not for the best actor of his generation (Daniel Day-Lewis) playing America's greatest president (Abraham Lincoln). Could this be the year?

Phoenix is asked to carry an immense emotional load, with no "physical" co-star to act across on screen. Would Scarlett have burned as hot without Rhett in the same room? Would Bogie have fallen for Bacall without her whistling at him in person? If Phoenix didn't believe it, we the audience wouldn't believe it. And yet, we absolutely buy into his teary eyes and crackling voice as he speaks into the darkness of his own bedroom, "I wish I could put my arms around you. I wish I could touch you."

Theodore is clearly a flawed character, a tad perverted and more than a tad awkward. But we overwhelmingly root for him to overcome the grief of his failed past relationship. Who among us can't relate to his existential heartbreak: "Sometimes I think I've felt everything I'm ever going to feel, and from here on out I'm not going to feel anything new, just lesser versions of what I've already felt."

Still, as brilliantly as the film explores Theodore's real-world emotions, the whole exercise would remain but an amusing gimmick if Jonze didn't take the next step. What really makes the movie is its ability to explore Samantha. After all, the film is called "Her," not "Him." And just as Jonze charts Theodore's quest for companionship, he also charts Samantha's quest for consciousness, mining daring new cinematic territory each time she thinks out loud with tragic realizations.

"Are these feelings even real? Or are they just programming? That idea really hurts," she says, unknowingly answering her own question by admitting she feels pain.

All hail Scarlett Johansson, who delivers a powerful vocal performance. Hound dogs will joke -- "If Scarlett Johansson was in my computer, I'd fall for her too!" -- but she is so much more than a pretty face. By now she has proven she has serious skills, from romantic thrillers like Woody Allen's "Match Point" (2005) to superhero blockbusters like Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" (2012). "Her" is her most important role since Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" (2003), now wandering the internet rather than Tokyo. If the Academy has any guts, it will nominate her for Best Supporting Actress.

Together, Phoenix and Johansson create two of cinema's most memorable lovers in the most impossible love story since "Harold & Maude" (1971). The possibilities for plot complications are endless (can anyone say "sex surrogate?"), giving new meaning to the phrase, "It's complicated."

Perhaps the most fascinating element is how other characters react to this unique relationship. Some, like Theodore's ex-wife (Rooney Mara), view it as an appalling act of desperation, akin to his late night "phone sex" with SexyKitten (Kristen Wiig) and ill-fated blind date (Olivia Wilde).

Others, like Theodore's boss (Chris Pratt) think nothing of it, responding to Theodore's guilty admission with a simple "cool" before offering to double date.

The most important outside litmus test is Theodore's best friend (Amy Adams), a frumpy documentary filmmaker going through her own relationship problems. She is the one person Theodore feels he can talk to, perhaps because she doesn't find the idea any weirder than love itself.

Amy: "Are you falling in love with her?"

Theodore: "Does that make me a freak?"

Amy: "No, no, I think it's, I think anybody who falls in love is a freak. It's a crazy thing to do. It's kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity."

And yet, no matter how crazy our hearts get, Jonze insists love is worth fighting for. His tone, while endlessly heartbreaking, is ultimately hopeful. What a treat to see the world through the eyes of Jonze, whether it's cutting to silent flashbacks of Theodore's ex-wife, fading to 70 seconds of black screen as Theodore and Samantha become the most intimate, or providing Samantha's POV shots, spinning in Theodore's hand, peering out of his breast pocket or lying next to him on the beach.

Of course, no film is perfect, just like "Gravity" went too far with Sandra Bullock's fire extinguisher thruster, and "American Hustle" went too far with Jennifer Lawrence singing "Live and Let Die." In "Her," Jonze overreaches with Theodore's interactions with a smartass video game character (voiced by Jonze himself). The hologram alien kid unleashes a string of profanity, recalling the "Jackass" series that Jonze co-produced, including this year's "Bad Grandpa." While it worked for Johnny Knoxville, it feels like he's forcing it here.

No matter. "Her" is a movie we'll be talking about for decades to come, documenting mankind's ongoing exchange between technological innovation and sexual evolution, from the home camcorders of Soderbergh's "sex, lies & videotape" (1989), to the "pokes" and "likes" of Fincher's "The Social Network" (2010).

But beyond the tech implications, "Her" works first and foremost as a story about emotion. There's a scene where Theodore says, "Sometimes I look at people and I make myself try and feel them as more than just a random person walking by. I imagine how deeply they've fallen in love, or how much heartbreak they've been through," to which Samantha replies, "I can see that in your writing."

The same can be said for Jonze.

This is more than a sci-fi tale. It's a love story. Period. As "Casablanca" sang, "The world will always welcome lovers, as time goes by," and these timeless themes will allow "Her" to exist into the infinite:

"It's like I'm writing a book, and it's a book I deeply love. But I'm writing it slowly now so the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you and the words of our story, but it's in this endless space between the words that I'm finding myself now. It's a place that's not of the physical world. It's where everything else is that I didn't even know existed."

And so I space out my own words, not wanting to leave "Her."

This…

Is…

An…

Instant…

Classic.

★ ★ ★ ★

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. See where "Her" ranks in the Best Movies of 2013. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @JFrayWTOP, read his blog The Film Spectrum or listen Friday mornings on 103.5 FM.

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