January is traditionally a huge month when it comes to films and their concomitant awards (Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, followed by the Oscars on March 2). This year has been especially rich in its variety and portrayals.
I've already recommended "Nebraska," convinced that it is a far better film than, say, "American Hustle" or, certainly, "Wolf of Wall Street." And clearly better than "August: Osage County," which pummels the audience with sustained and dark family dysfunction.
I would also recommend "Her," written and directed by Spike Jonze ("Adaptation," "Where the Wild Things Are"), a gifted writer and filmmaker who has created an eccentric work, mildly melancholic, deeply sincere, and robustly allegorical in its theme and intent.
At its center is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), recently divorced, feeling increasingly isolated and now living alone in his monochromatic apartment, located in a placid, near-future L.A. His life, he feels, has flat-lined, and he spends his days writing letters of endearment for an outfit akin to Hallmark.
For instance, his most emotional moment is when he meets his ex-wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), at a restaurant — the purpose of signing their final divorce papers. He is heartbroken. She is eager to move on.
On a whim, seeing an ad for a new operating system for his iPhone, he signs up for the state-of-the-art, artificial intelligence app, akin to what is available today with Apple's Siri, but far more advanced. He soon discovers that the parameters he has suggested for the voice programmed to interact with him calls herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson).
To his surprise and delight, she possesses a sultry voice, encourages intimacy, anticipates Theo's moods, is sensitive to the tone of his voice — its subtle nuances and reflexive restraint — and even begins to organize his e-life.
She wakes him each morning and gives him encouragement throughout the day. In other words, Samantha is a composite of the perfect girlfriend: a quick study, voracious in her desire for experiences, and eager to see and learn not only about Theodore but about his world and about life as viewed through his eyes (or phone, more correctly).
The more time they spend together, the more enamored Theodore is with her. And before long, their connection morphs into a serious, sensual love affair, prompting Samantha to comment that falling in love is a socially acceptable form of insanity. They are crazy about each other.
And here is the rub: Jonze takes this romantic narrative seriously and gives it a gentle twist, making Samantha quintessentially human with an almost surreal, heartfelt honesty and consistent intuitiveness that eventually overwhelms Theodore. He unequivocally loves interacting with her.
When he tells Catherine about his new relationship, finally confessing that she is an OS, her snarky response is that "he always wanted a wife without the challenges of a real person."
And therein, suggests the film, lies the truth of our rapidly texting, smart phone, iPad, computer-driven world, and thereby frames the question that the future begs. Are we more comfortable with the inherent distance created by our small screens than we are engaging one another face to face?
Is this dynamic the reason four people sit at a table over dinner, focused not on each other but on small fluorescent screens?
"Her" is not a romantic comedy, and that is its strength. It's a love story between two people, so-to-speak, willing to risk being themselves. Until, of course, they're not.