The terrible reality of modern life is that even beautiful young people on a first date can't go a whole evening without checking their phones. We need to be potentially connected to every possibility at all times; just allowing the present to happen has become increasingly foreign. That's the idea Spike Jonze is scratching at in his futuristic romance Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, an about-to-be-divorced Los Angeles writer who falls in love with an operating system, one designed not only to run his laptop and devices but to help him get through life; it intuits and meets his every need. That setup might sound weirder than it is: The voice of this OS — she calls herself Samantha — is Scarlett Johansson's, and if you heard it, shimmering into your brain through an earpiece all day, every day, as Theodore does, you'd fall in love with it, too.
That voice is very real. The complication is that it belongs not to an actual woman but to an algorithmic construct. In case you haven't guessed, Theodore is using technology to avoid the pain of real human connection. And that's the problem with Her, too: Jonze is so entranced with his central conceit that he can barely move beyond it. This is a movie about a benumbed person that itself feels chloroformed, zonked out, even in those moments when Jonze is clearly striving for depth of feeling. Its metaphors are more obvious than the bricks that cruel mouse Ignatz used to hurl at poor, lovelorn Krazy Kat, and yet not nearly as direct. Instead of just being desperately heartfelt, Her keeps reminding us — through cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema's somber-droll camera work, through Phoenix's artfully slumped shoulders — how desperately heartfelt it is.
Theodore knows, just as you do, that real-life relationships are messier than anything we can channel through a handheld device. He still misses his soon-to-be-ex-wife (a desperately human prickly pear played by Rooney Mara), and his close platonic confidant (a colorlessly likable Amy Adams) has plenty of troubles of her own. But he just can't help his infatuation with Samantha. She isn't supposed to have feelings, but thanks to some miracle of science, she returns Theodore's affections. The two embark on rambling adventures through the city — Theodore tucks the Samantha-pod device in his shirt pocket, so she can peek out at the world through a little lens. She's a girlfriend you can literally keep in your pocket. The relationship is too good, and too wrong, to last.
But even as he acknowledges the uncontrollability of human relationships, Jonze never does anything so passionate as let go. There are many, many feelings stuck into Her, pincushion-style, but the result is a kind of overstuffed stupefaction. Jonze and Van Hoytema take great care with the visuals, working hard to hit notes of longing and mournfulness. At one point, a shot of airborne, sunlit dust motes transmutes into a field of falling snowflakes. How serene! How lovely! But what do dust motes have to do with snowflakes? Sometimes a technical trick can be too gorgeous, so previsualized that it comes off as a contrivance.
Much of the dialogue sounds premeditated, too. (This is the first picture Jonze has written as well as directed.) There's an old journalism rule about always using the word "says," never "opines" or "sighs." Her opines and sighs all over the place. "Sometimes I think I've felt everything I'm ever going to feel," Theodore confides glumly to Samantha. "And from here on out, I'm not going to feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I've already felt." In the guise of being direct, the movie is actually maddeningly coy.
We're supposed to feel so much for Theodore in his Tom Selleck mustache, oh-so-winsomely plucking at a ukulele as he lounges in his underfurnished bachelor apartment; his life is as empty as his bookshelves. Phoenix is sometimes an astonishing actor, and not just when he's playing Johnny Cash; working with director James Gray in particular, in pictures like Two Lovers and We Own the Night, he has given astute, resonant performances, stripped of fussy mannerisms. But in Her, he's a stylized, mumbly drifter, so attached to his performance that he's barely attached to us. Johansson's voice, as plush and light-reflecting as velveteen, is the movie's saving grace; Samantha is the one character in Her who seems capable of delight. Samantha Morton was originally cast in the role and had completed the movie when, at the last minute, Jonze substituted Johansson. Morton is a terrific actress, but in this instance Jonze's instincts were golden. The movie isn't just unimaginable without Johansson — it might have been unbearable without her.
Theodore doesn't know what he wants, and probably fears that even if he knew, he wouldn't be able to get it. What human being hasn't felt that way? But it's hard to respond to onscreen romantic trauma and feelings of disconnection when they're so wan and wispy. There are whole chunks of Her, so arduously layered with soft-focus pain and cautious happiness, that could have been lifted from those '80s phone commercials touting the benefits of "staying connected." Theodore, like James Stewart in Vertigo, is in love with an illusion. The difference is that this spectacle and all its ideas would fit on the screen of your iPod.