A romantic who doesn't know how to be in love.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), the protagonist of Spike Jonze's prickly sci-fi romance Her, is a sensitive guy. He pens richly detailed letters for clients of his employer, BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. He carefully reads the expressions of people he sees and hears the subtle inflections in their voices. Plus he's still mourning the end of his marriage a year later, instructing his mobile device to play a melancholy song at the end of the workday.
Simply put, Theodore is not like the central characters in many other "man changed by romantic relationship" stories. And I can't think of another movie in which a man gets romantic with a computer operating system named Samantha.
The high-concept premise for Her is its key marketing hook, and it taps into something zeitgeisty. When Theodore begins his relationship with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the movie seems like it's going to be about human connections that have become exclusively digital. Yet Her isn't simply a fable about living virtually. Jonze places Theodore in some brutally funny situations involving digital connections, from an awkward sex chat to an interaction with a foul-mouthed videogame character.
Her is best at exploring just how hard it can be to manage relationships with real humans. Jonze crafts character studies that are edgy and challenging. As sweet and sensitive as Theodore may seem, he's also got a shallow side, as his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) suggests when they meet to finalize their divorce. We catch him deleting serious news alerts, only to linger on provocative photos of a pregnant celebrity. Being a romantic isn't the same as knowing how to be in love.
That's the soul of the dynamic between Theodore and Samantha, magnificently captured in both lead performances. Johansson's voice evokes the perky, quirky personality that initially makes Samantha so appealing, as well as the anxiety and uncertainty of an entity only beginning to understand its capacity to feel and think. And Phoenix makes Theodore endearing while showing his struggle with the thorny, unromantic issues that accompany real relationships.