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‘Her’: A wondrous digital romance by Spike Jonze

‘HER’ ★★★1⁄2

Theodore Joaquin Phoenix

Amy Amy Adams

Catherine Rooney Mara

Samantha Scarlett Johansson

Warner Bros. presents a film written and directed by Spike Jonze. Running time: 119 minutes. Rated R (for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity). Opens Wednesday at Landmark Century Centre, AMC River East 21 and Evanston Century 12.

Updated: January 25, 2014 6:08AM

In various and cloying TV ads for the iPhone’s Siri, Samuel L. Jackson, Zooey Deschanel and John Malkovich treat their phones like their best friends as they engage in whimsical conversations with their incredibly efficient invisible friend.

As much as I cling to my iPhone as if it were a breathing apparatus, I have no such relationship with Siri. I kinda hate her. She doesn’t listen to me, she misinterprets my requests and she says, “Now now Richard,” when I curse at her.

In Spike Jonze’s lovely and wondrous ultra-modern romance “Her,” we’re asked to imagine a world in which a Siri-like knowledge navigator has advanced to the point of having human emotions and super-human intelligence. Not only can she answer all your questions at the speed of light, she can ask questions of her own, develop her own personality and even give you some pretty great phone sex.

It’s not even considered insane if you fall in love with her.

Working from that premise, writer-director Jonze (“Adaptation,” “Being John Malkovich”) comes up with one of the more original, hilarious and even heartbreaking stories of the year. It’s kinda nuts but also kinda unforgettable.

Sporting a mustache that makes him look like a silent film star, favoring tomato-red shirts and hitching his pants halfway up his torso in what apparently is the fashion of the era (the Los Angeles of a not-too-distant future), Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore is a kind, smart and fragile fellow. He’s the star writer at a company that composes personalized greeting cards, anniversary messages and love letters for other people. Theodore aggregates all the data about your relationship and turns your history into beautiful prose, expressing everything you feel but don’t know how to say in your own words.

Alas, Theodore’s own heart is cracked nearly beyond repair since his wife abandoned him. (The wife is played by Rooney Mara, and wouldn’t your heart be broken if Rooney Mara left you?)

Unable to connect with real women save a platonic friendship with a neighbor (Amy Adams), Theodore takes up with an Operating System — an OS. While most humans continue to have relationships with other humans, the OS option is becoming increasingly popular, to the point where some folks even go on double dates where only three people are in the room.

Voiced by Scarlett Johansson and heard but never seen, Theodore’s OS is called Samantha. She’s brilliant, empathetic, funny and capable of growing as an entity. She’s not a synthetic program, she’s a living being. The only thing is, there’s no actual body. It’s a Bluetooth romance.

Thanks to Jonze, Phoenix and Johansson, it’s remarkable how believable this is, and how we can understand (to a point) why Theodore prefers the supportive, playful, loving Samantha to a more complicated human being. (A date with a gorgeous, charming but extremely needy woman played by Olivia Wilde goes horribly wrong.)

In most movies set in the future, the populace wears shades of gray, toils under a sunless sky and is usually fending off zombies or aliens while living under an oppressive government. In “Her,” the characters wear oranges and browns and whites, and while there does seem to be a general sense of ennui permeating the air, people move about freely, the beaches are crowded, and the skyline (with Shanghai serving as the L.A. of the future) is beautiful. Jonze has created a universe both realistic and dreamlike.

“Her” is filled with small touches of genius, including a computer game character that taunts Theodore, and perfect musical selections. At one point I did feel the Theodore/Samantha romance was stretched a bit thin, with the sharp satire yielding to some you-gotta-be-kidding-me behavior by Theodore.

But “Her” works as a real romance, and as a commentary on the ways technology connects everyone to the world but also isolates us from legitimate, warm human contact. Next time you’re on a train or a bus or in a coffee shop, count the number of people gazing at portable devices, wearing headphones or talking on their phones, as opposed to the number of people engaged in face-to-face conversation. You know which group will be larger.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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