Considering the fact that he just starred in “The Master” last year, it's difficult to believe that Joaquin Phoenix could be romantic comedy/drama material. In that movie, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, he plays Freddie Quell, a World War II veteran suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. He stumbles and staggers through that movie like an intoxicated, wild beast. He has erratic behaviors and violent mood swings. He spends most of the movie hunched over, his arms usually locked on his sides, in a stiff arch. He’s a lost and lonely soul.

Aside from the lonely soul part, Phoenix’s portrayal of Theodore in “Her” — Spike Jonze’s outstanding, new romantic dramedy and sci-fi of sorts — is the exact opposite of Freddy Quell: He’s sweet, sensitive and gentle. Where Freddie would suddenly act out violently, Theodore wouldn’t hurt a fly.

While Phoenix’s performance in “The Master” is more physical (think of the slouching and the stiffness) and extroverted, his portrayal of Theodore is very much internalized and draws the viewer into his world and emotions that way.

“Her” is set in Los Angeles in the near-future; at one time, Theodore was happily married to a girl named Catherine (Rooney Mara, in a brief but effective performance), but now he’s in the process of getting a divorce and is feeling down. For the most part, Phoenix wonderfully shows this pain and agony through looks and soft deliveries of his lines.

 

A new kind of relationship

Theodore works as a professional letter writer. He sits at his desk and dictates a passionate love letter into a microphone, and it gets automatically transcribed in handwritten format. In this future, even handwritten love letters — something extremely personal — has become impersonal and industrialized.

Except for occasionally running into college friend Amy (Amy Adams), Theodore spends most of the time alone. He’s a damn-good letter writer and seems to empty his soul into each and every one of them, but they’re all for someone else. Thankfully, Jonze (who also wrote the screenplay) doesn’t spend too much time showing Theodore wallowing in sadness and loneliness, and before long, we’re introduced to Theodore’s love interest Samantha.

However, here’s the twist: Samantha is a disembodied operating system designed to be his companion and meet his every need. Theodore doesn’t quite know what to do at first: How does one form a genuine relationship with a computer? But has been designed with intuition, which allows her to learn fairly quickly.

Samantha is played by Scarlett Johansson in voice only, and much like Douglas Rain, who played the intelligent computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” she infuses so much life and personality into Samantha. We don’t need to see her on the screen; her voice allows us to craft our own image of her in our minds.

Not long after Theodore purchases Samantha, they begin to form a bond that begins to resemble actual love. Since Samantha is a computer and Theodore is a human, he teaches her a lot about human relationships and love — he even opens up to her about his marriage with Catherine and how it ended.

But she also manages to teach him a few things, too, like how to rediscover the excitement and mystery in life. Weirdly enough, the two end up making a great pair, each one seeing the world from a different view and both having lessons to teach one another.

 

Observations about life

While some of this sounds corny and conventional and the movie does contain the same ups-and-downs one would usually find in a romantic comedy, the movie is incredibly well made: Jonze stages each scene and interaction with the upmost authenticity, his screenplay is full of acute and witty dialogue and the score by Arcade Fire subtly accompanies the rest of the movie.

The concept is very quirky and strange, but considering it’s directed by Jonze (who directed “Adaption” and “Being John Malkovitch”), that shouldn’t come as a surprise — this is the kind of material he excels in.

It also may be difficult for some to take the film entirely seriously, but as Samantha and Theodore get closer and as Samantha becomes more advanced, that initial oddness of the concept begins to fade away and you find yourself invested in these characters as if they were a regular romantic-dramedy couple.

In addition, Jonze knows to inject plenty of humor into the film, which makes it much more pleasurable and easy to watch.

With this concept, “Her” can be looked at partly as a commentary on the advantages and disadvantages of online relationships and, more generally, how relationships have evolved and adapted with the recent breakthroughs in technology. Is it possible to have a meaningful relationship with someone who’s not physically there, but in a metal box? Can it ever replace physical contact with someone? The picture is full of observations and insights about life and love just waiting to be discovered and appreciated.

“Her” is one of the most refreshing romantic comedy/dramas in recent years. It’s funny and touching, and has a hint of sci-fi and a gimmick that sets it apart from the others.

However, the movie wouldn’t be nearly as great without Johansson, and especially Phoenix. We see a soulful, delicate side of him we’ve never seen in any of his other movies. Phoenix went through a bit of a rough patch (starring in the terrible documentary “I’m Still Here,” in which he played a version of himself trying to become a hip-hop singer), but now it’s safe to say that he’s back.

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