Love virtually believable in 'Her'

Joaquin Phoenix in 'Her' (2013)
Joaquin Phoenix in 'Her' (2013)
Photo by Warner Bros.
| Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, 8:55 p.m.

It's the age-old story, sort of: Boy meets operating system, boy falls for operating system, operating system falls for him and so on.

Like much of Spike Jonze's brilliant “Her,” the familiar is tinged with the fantastic. It's a love story with science-fiction trappings and both elements work. The science fiction supports the story without overpowering it, and the romance is genuine — even if it's virtual.

Plus, the acting is fantastic, even if we never see one of the main characters.

The movie is set in Los Angeles in the near future. Technology has advanced to the point where, for instance, people don't type information into computers. They just speak to them and let them do the work.

Jonze, who also wrote the script, doesn't pass judgment on the place technology has taken in people's lives, at least not in blatant ways. Rather, we have Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), whose job is to write love letters for people too busy or disconnected to write them themselves. No time for romance? Outsource it.

Theodore is good at his job. But he is separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), and his loneliness is palpable. Then he sees an ad in a magazine about a personalized operating system that runs on computers and smartphones. He gives it a try, and thus begins his relationship with a system that calls itself Samantha, with whom he speaks.

This isn't grabbing your iPhone and asking Siri for directions. This is an intelligent system that is capable of carrying on a conversation, learning and growing with the user. Yes, it can even participate in phone sex.

It's a remarkable idea, made all the more so by an incredible off-screen performance by Scarlett Johansson. She gives Samantha more humanity than Catherine (“He's in love with his laptop,” she tells a waitress).

Despite Catherine's withering remark, Jonze avoids making Theodore's love for Samantha a freak show. Phoenix's performance also helps sell the idea. We see Theodore's loneliness and desperation. Yet, through his work writing letters we see his capacity — and hope — for true love.

Complicating matters is Samantha's ability to learn and grow.

Their relationship mimics a real-life one. It's kind of funny to see Theodore dancing around at a fair, holding his phone, showing her what he's seeing through the phone's camera. Yet, his joy is so infectious, we easily overlook the weirdness of the situation.

Of course, if happiness can be rendered so realistically, so can heartbreak.

“Her” is an outstanding movie, in part because of its originality, but also because of its execution. It's an honest-to-goodness romance like we've never seen before, one that knows it's not important where we find love, just that we do.

Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic is the chief film critic for Gannett.

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