Like John Cusack’s disheveled mess in director Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich and Nicolas Cage’s embodiment of writer Charlie Kaufman in the director’s Adaptation, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a terribly sad subject, largely withdrawn from society.
He buys a new computer, which asks him a handful of personal questions and before he knows it, there is Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), his personalized operating system. She is immediately a friendly presence in an otherwise frozen life, and as she learns more about Theodore, Samantha becomes his constant companion.
Her throws typical human conflict into their deepening romantic relationship, and Jonze also tempts Theodore through a blind date (Olivia Wilde), a meet-up with his ex-wife (Rooney Mara), and the pleasant friendship with his neighbor (Amy Adams).
Joaquin Phoenix is one of the truly unique actors working today. No, he’s not Daniel Day-Lewis, but the things Joaquin Phoenix can do well, very few others can. His performance in last year’s The Master was all tied up in knots, but it wasn’t a very believable guy. Theodore is more human and light years more empathetic; it’s the most poetic and elegant work in Phoenix’ career. To go from one to the other says a lot about the man who can do both.
Jonze, as he always does, builds a universe for his characters that is not quite real. You’re aware it’s the land of a story, and you’re aware that all of these places – the 13 ½ floor from Malkovich, the destinations in his adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are – connect somehow in the mind of their creator.
That commitment is apparent in every scene, from the furniture and clothes that heavily mine the mid-century to the dreamy, atmospheric music. And everything about it, from the look to the sound to 20th the story to Joaquin Phoenix’ captivating performance, make it an absolutely unshakable film.
HER, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson. Directed by Spike Jonze. R, 126 mins. Opens Friday.