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Her’ is a simple, moving allegory, not so much about technology

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Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) isn’t expecting to find love when he purchases the latest tech marvel.

Three and a half stars

Her Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams. Directed by Spike Jonze. Rated R. Opens Friday.

With half the population of America spending half its day interacting with various computers, it was only a matter of time before somebody envisioned a romance between a human being and an operating system. What’s surprising about Her—the first film written as well as directed by Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation)—is how small a role artificial intelligence really plays. Even though one of the two main characters is a sentient machine, the movie barely explores the ramifications; for better and worse, it could readily be tweaked into the story of a long-distance relationship, conducted primarily over the phone and on the Internet. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

When he purchases OS1, the latest tech marvel, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) isn’t expecting to find love. When asked whether he’d prefer a male or female voice, however, he selects the latter, and is instantly introduced to Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson), a vastly more sophisticated version of Siri that—or “who,” perhaps—can interact with him exactly as a real woman would, apart from not having a body. Her metamorphosis from personal assistant to best friend to virtual lover is rapid, and the two of them seem to make a perfect if unconventional couple ... until Theodore suddenly begins pulling away, and Samantha, whose understanding of the world grows every picosecond, slowly begins wishing for more.

Had brilliant screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who wrote Jonze’s first two films, been handed this premise, he’d surely have come up with something unforgettably visionary. Jonze instead creates a simple, moving allegory about what happens when soul mates drift apart, investing most of his futuristic ideas into the film’s subtly offbeat costume and set design. (Though it’s set in Los Angeles, much of it was shot in China.) What makes Her work—ironically, since she doesn’t appear onscreen and wasn’t the original actor cast in the role (having replaced Samantha Morton in post-production)—is Johansson, who makes Samantha so incorporeally vivid that Theodore doesn’t seem like a deviant for falling in love with her. In the movie’s most powerful scene, Samantha hires a sex surrogate, speaking to Theodore while another woman touches him and pretends to be her; it’s a testament to Johansson’s amazing performance that we’re as creeped out as Theodore is. Any true attraction, Her argues, is fundamentally a meeting of minds.

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