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MOVIE REVIEW: Spike Jonze flick 'her' is 'kind of out there'

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Joaquin Phoenix stars in "her." (Photo: Warner Bros.)

her

(R)

3 1/2 stars out of 4 stars

After a brilliant debut (“Being John Malkovich”) and a decent follow-up (“Adaptation.”) — both written by mad genius Charlie Kaufman — director Spike Jonze strayed far from his freak-flag mantra and completely tanked with the inert and ill-conceived “Where the Wild Things Are.” Getting back to a “Malkovich” mindset, Jonze — working with his first self-penned original screenplay — is back on solid turf with the sublime genre mash-up “her” (spelled with all lower case letters). Even for a guy like Jonze who gravitates toward angular, fringe material, “her” is kind of out there.

In the wake of a divorce he didn’t want, Theo (Joaquin Phoenix) is far from ready to get back in the saddle and spends all of his time (like far too many people in the real world these days) with his electronic devices. It kind of makes sense. Theo works for company as a writer who composes “handwritten letters” in software-formed longhand printed on actual stationary for people too lazy to do it themselves and he is a textbook tech nerd.

Like nerds the world over, Theo likes to be the first with the latest gadgets but his newest operating system (OS) is beyond the beyond. Dangerously simple to activate and use, the new OS is the kind of thing that could turn introverts into hermits and hermits into monks.

When asked if he’d prefer the OS voice to be that of a man or a woman, Theo pauses for half a second and chooses the latter. Rather than a flat, monotone, synthesized voice he (and we at the moment) is used to, this OS names herself Samantha and sounds a whole lot like Scarlett Johansson. Actually it is Johansson but only after Jonze decided the original choice Samantha Morton wasn’t impossibly sultry enough. Some have speculated that Jonze turned to Johansson as a way of tossing a dig at his ex-wife Sofia Coppola who directed Johansson in “Lost in Translation.”

Wisely setting the story in an unspecified time in the near future in a disquieting lethargic, mellow and pastel Los Angeles, Jonze is able to convince us immediately that a software program can sound like Samantha (warm, sexy, inviting), be capable of complex original thought and authentic human emotion. This is not quite the “out-there” part, like in “Lars and the Real Girl” where the lead character fell in love and talked to a blow-up doll that couldn’t respond. Pay close attention toward the middle of the second act; when the screen goes pitch black for about a minute. If you can make it through this scene intact you can handle everything else that follows it.

For Theo, Samantha soon becomes as real as the rest of the films’ flesh-and-blood characters and, sadly, more relatable. Jonze’s ability to suspend disbelief here is beyond impressive and borderline scary. Rarely if ever has a sci-fi movie come across as so not sci-fi mostly because once the premise is confidently and solidly made clear, “her” transitions into a full-blown romance.

At first, Theo’s brother Paul (Chris Pratt) and his neighbor/friend Amy (Amy Adams) feel like he’s gone off the deep end as both were worried sick about his post-divorce downward spiral. Eventually each comes to view Samantha as something of a left-handed godsend. At one point, Paul, his wife, Theo and Samantha go on a double date and nobody gives it a second thought that there are only three humans present.

Having a huge problem with Samantha is Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theo’s ex-wife. Eager and relieved to having jettisoned Theo, Catherine doesn’t know quite how to react when finding out his new “girlfriend” is intangible and has summarily displaced her in his heart. If “her” had come out even as recently as five years ago, few if anyone would believe it could happen, much less gone along full-boar with the narrative construct. The film’s success has as much to do with timing as it does crack storytelling.

As with most cinematic romances, the third act sees the start of conflict between the leads, but by this time we know it’s not going to be like anything we’ve ever seen before yet even then we are shocked by what goes down but oddly not all that surprised. Artificial intelligence may be “artificial” but that doesn’t mean it feels fake or even insincere. As a society we should prepare ourselves for the day when OSs start behaving more human than humans, humans start to act less human and more like devices thanks to their ever-escalating love affairs with technology.

Oh, the irony.

Maybe Jonze’s story isn’t as out there as initially perceived. Perhaps he’s sending out a warning signal in the form of an innocuous little brown box that Theo keeps in his shirt pocket. A box that has a single lens on the front that bears more than passing resemblance to “HAL” from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and most of us remember how well THAT turned out. (Warner Bros.)