In vivid pastel colors, Jonze cleverly introduces us to lonely, depressed Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), the best writer at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, a service that provides deeply personal letters for other people to share. He speaks casually to his computer and the words come with ease for him, displayed neatly and beautifully on the screen. In this not-too-distant future version of Los Angeles Jonze has fashioned, human emotion and intimacy has been dulled so much by technology that it must be created out of thin air by others and then, yes, filtered through more technology. It's an introduction worth a chuckle or two, mainly because it's not as far-fetched as it seems, and in some ways recalls Joseph Gordon-Levitt's greeting card writer from (500) Days of Summer.
But there is no manic pixie dream girl in Theodore's future, he's wrapped up in his own pain for that. He's been unable to finalize a divorce with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), holding out hope for a reconciliation that won't come. They've been together all their lives but the divorce was bitter, brutal, and Theodore can't help but think back to those terrible final arguments while trying to recall the moments of genuine happiness. It's almost as if he's trying to prove to himself there was a time before the depression, in an effort to find that place again. He's not very good with people, as evidenced by the brief conversations with his boss (Chris Pratt), but he does have friends, mainly his equally-awkward neighbor Amy (Amy Adams, as far from American Hustle as imaginable). She programs video games for a living, which is convenient because he freely admits to being addicted to them, not that he finds them emotionally rewarding in any way. Everything changes when he sees an ad for the new OS1, hailed as the first true artificial intelligence program, capable of evolving over time. Intrigued, he buys one and brings it home, answers a few easy questions (not unlike an online dating profile, coincidentally) and is introduced to Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the voice that will come to be his constant companion
Right away he's amazed at how engaging and probing Samantha can be, and while she organizes his cluttered life she also begins to grow into a real friend. She does more than help him out at work, talking to him through a little earpiece and seeing the world through a tiny camera stashed in his pocket, she also starts pushing Theodore back out into civilization. She encourages his ultimately disastrous blind date with a sexy, somewhat unstable woman (Olivia Wilde), and begins sorting through his best writing for a potential book. Eventually, that friendship begins to turn into something more, built on long late-night conversations of a personal nature. He takes her on whirlwind trips to show her the world, and she's genuinely fascinated just as much as he's enlivened by having a partner to share these things with. When things begin to turn to a romantic, and ultimately a sexual nature, it feels very natural; as natural as anything Theodore has ever experienced.
Movies about our destructive dependence and obsession with technology are nothing new; we had one just a few months ago in the badly misguided Disconnect; but Jonze's film is a unique, humanist take on the idea. The genius of it is how Jonze is capable of making us believe in this relationship as something real, looking beyond just the physical limitations and focusing on the feelings. And soon it's like we're watching just another relationship, with its blistering honeymoon period and eventual fall into comfortable predictability. As things become too familiar, jealousy and doubt become a destructive presence, especially as Samantha's circle of disembodied friends (including the mind of Zen philosopher Alan Watts!) begins to grow. Jonze isn't telling us anything new about male/female interaction per se, what he does say is deeply felt and truthful, enough to move through what can be a slowly-paced first hour.
Shot in soft tones and given a soothing climate by Arcade Fire and Karen O's score, the film is both sad and hopeful, with humor that comes from a place of genuine warmth. That warmth is embodied in another idiosyncratic performance by Phoenix, who shows a broad range of emotions in a role that requires him to be on screen alone for long stretches. It seems like ever since his return after the whole I'm Not There debacle, he's been delivering increasingly expressive performances, and we've never seen him like this before, covering the range from melancholic to joyful with equal efficiency. While Amy Adams is somewhat forgettable as Theodore's pal, it's Scarlett Johansson shows just how much can be done merely with the various inflections of her voice. Her Samantha is a fully-realized character, as much as anybody else in the film if not more so. If there's a case to be made for altering the criteria for acting awards nominations, Johansson makes it here and now with a performance that is more than worthy of recognition.
Jonze finds real beauty and genuine passion in the midst of the technological landscape, suggesting all is not lost for true love just yet.