‘Her’ delivers despite bizarre premise

Ben Conniff

If any filmmaker could make an audience buy into a story about a man who falls in love with his computer operating system, it’s Spike Jonze (“Where the Wild Things Are,” “Being John Malkovich”). With his new sci-fi romantic drama-comedy “Her,” Jonze manages to do just that. He makes the most bizarre premise of the year work in a way that’s profoundly original, yet feels like a place that anyone who’s ever been in a serious relationship is familiar with. The conversations that Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) has with his OS girlfriend Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) feel like talks I’ve had, or could have, with my own girlfriend. This is how “Her” earned my emotional investment and kept me entertained for two hours.

Aside from that, it’s just a wonderfully written story from Jonze. At times, it’s laugh-out-loud hysterical, especially when Theo plays a video game involving a vulgar alien companion. At others, the movie plucks ever so gently on your heart strings. Phoenix turns in another bravura performance, but what I liked more about his character in “Her” than his recent turns in movies like “The Master” or “Walk the Line” is that Theodore isn’t an asshole. He writes handwritten letters for people to send to loved ones for a living. He’s still a sad, melancholy man at times, but there’s a sense of joy in his life that I found refreshing after watching Phoenix, for years, shout at his family and play several “lone wolf” characters.

Johansson, oddly enough, deserves an Oscar nomination even though she’s never present in physical form. Her voice work as Samantha is astounding, and nearly makes the audience fall in love with her just as Theodore does. Together, the unlikely couple is a joy to watch and somehow manage to be relatable. I think that’s why the story works so well.

I was irked only on one or two occasions involving Theo & Samantha’s sex life. I can’t spoil anything, but I will say that if the idea behind the film wasn’t odd enough, it gets uncomfortably weird in a couple brief scenes. It doesn’t ruin the overall experience, though.

“Her” is a stellar picture that’s poignant for our time as we search for what it means to connect with real people in an ever-changing world dominated by technology. This isn’t just the finest romance of 2013; it’s the perfect romance for the current state of the human condition.