1. "Don't knock masturbation," says Woody Allen's Alvy Singer in Annie Hall. "It's sex with someone I love." Her is many things, but at its heart, it's a clear-minded, alternately romantic and fatalist look at what, precisely, we are falling in love with when we are "falling in love." Falling in love, like anything else, is a process, a series of events in which one person provides information to another that is warmly received and returned in kind; it is at its core, in matters emotional, physical, and temperamental, an exchange. As two people in love continue to interact, there are changes in both parties, some of which are beneficial to the relationship, some of which are not. But no matter what, it is something that constantly evolves. Relationships that last are the ones in which this evolution works for the relationship, rather than against it. Considering this evolution involves the human mind—the most imprecise, inconsistent organ in the body—it's no wonder so many relationships are a crapshoot. What one person wants isn't exactly what another person wants. That is a fundamental definition of humanity.
2. What Her does is put this in the context of technology: If you have a relationship with something that is specifically designed to evolve with you—created solely for that purpose—does this relationship count? Can this work as "love?" Is that fundamental definition of humanity a correctable bug? Set in a not-far-from-now-but-not-close-either future, Her features a man named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who has recently gone through a divorce, in large part because, as his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) complains, he was unwilling to engage their relationship as anything other than a lovely theoretical. (Real life was something to be retreated from.) He mopes around his Los Angeles penthouse apartment—he has a job "writing" letters for clients who struggle expressing themselves—until one day he buys a new operating system for his computer. (In this future, the "computer" is more a total life organizer that lives in something like The Cloud.) For setup, the system asks him two question: "What is your relationship with your mother like?" and "Would you like a male voice or a female one?"
3. The system is named Samantha and has the voice of Scarlett Johansson. (Johansson was looped in post-production, replacing Samantha Morton, which would have made for a different movie all together.) She is playful, flirty, infinitely intelligent, and, most of all, helpful in every possible way. She composes emails for Theodore, sets his schedule, listens to his complaints, and even organizes his writings into a book proposal, which she sends out to publishers without his knowing. (This is not so far in the future that books don't exist.) She is assistant and mother and partner and best friend and everything anyone could possibly want, all wrapped up in one virtual package, and the best thing about her is that when she evolves, she evolves exclusively in ways that benefit Theodore. She knows him better than he knows himself, and works only for his own happiness. Is that what love is? For Theodore, it sure feels like it.
4. The movie is rather shockingly big-hearted about this. It never judges Theodore or makes him creepy or strange; thanks in large part to Phoenix's honest, guileless performance, it's cheering for him as hard as you will. He wants to find love, and he doesn't quite understand why he can't. When Samantha arrives, you see him open up in a way he never has before. He's alive. You might think that Theodore is pathetic, that he can only be loved by an operating system invented solely to make him happy—his ex-wife makes this exact point—but that doesn't change the fact that he's happy. Our world has made computers so much better than humans at just about everything else. Why would love—or at least a simulacrum of love, or a simulacrum of the feeling of love—be any different? This is an extremely delicate, difficult thing to put on screen—large sections of the film consist simply of Phoenix talking to himself—but director Spike Jonze (from his own screenplay) never blinks. He adores Theodore and wants him to be happy. Who are we to judge what makes a man happy?
5. This is all set in a near-future Los Angeles in which most of our social ills have been cured. Everyone has jobs and takes public transportation; the air is clean and crisp; and entertainment is as easy and efficient as an Apple ad. (It is telling than Mara, as the ex-wife writer who wants nothing to do with this modern world, is seen as out of step and caustic; she's messy in the way this real world is weeding out.) Eventually, the rest of the world starts falling for their operating systems as well—including Amy Adams as Theodore's best friend, a thinly sketched role that serves mostly to verbalize the film's main theses—which leads to its own problems. And in this lies Her's deepest melancholy: As technology evolves at a pace humans cannot imagine, it's inevitable that it will evolve past humanity—that we will be beneath it. (How do you have a relationship with something that can have millions of conversations simultaneously?) Even with something/someone built just for him, it can all go away, for no reason, just because that's what happens. Her is sad and smart and funny, but more than anything, it feels real. The movie argues that's all that matters. Love is as real as you allow it to be. That's what's terrifying about it. And that's what makes it so great.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.