Joaquin Phoenix has always graced the screen as a force to be reckoned with. From his maniacal turn as the tyrant Commodus in Gladiator to the creative brilliance in becoming Johnny Cash in Walk the Line to the subtle beauty of being Lucius Hunt in The Village to the creepily tragic performance as Freddie Quell in The Master, Phoenix is a method actor who does not relinquish any of his artistic authenticity from his seeing what's on the page through to his delivering it on the screen. He is an actor among actors, one who rarely (if ever) visibly fails at his craft. In the real world, in interviews and such, Phoenix can come across as aloof and at times, arrogant. But when he embodies a role on screen, there's no denying his unbelievable level of talent.
As Theodore Twombly in Her, Phoenix lays down his emotional heft yet again, in the most eccentrically genuine manner. Set in the not too distant future, (which only in some ways differs from our current time, and in other ways looks purposefully, nostalgically like a crisper, more streamlined 1950s America), the film displays a story about a man disconnected from those around him. Theodore is suffering a heartbreak, going through a divorce, and generally lonely in the life in which he finds himself. But although millions have gone through such an experience before, Phoenix brings you into the mind, the heart, the feeling of this one, singular man's experience of these things in a way that only a gifted actor can.
Also dissimilar to the experiences of people up to and in our age, there is a computer system developed in Theodore's time. It is an operating system (eerily not wholly unlike Apple's current-day Siri) which has an (ostensible) very acute sense of "self." You speak to it; it speaks back. It has a thoroughly human voice (played simultaneously seductive yet heartfelt by Scarlett Johansson), and an internal networking structure so complex and expansive so as to simulate a human being in the utmost accessible terms.
Samantha (Johansson) is virtually all that Theodore is seeking in his life. "She" is kind, thoughtful, organized, sexy, methodical, caring, compassionate, and understanding. She feels insofar as a machine can, to the point where the audience almost forgets "her" inhumanity. Even in discussing the character of Samantha, it is easy to fall immediately (as having done so here) into using nomenclature reserved for human or (at least) animal beings. Female/male distinct pronouns readily pop to the surface when discussing Samantha because Spike Jonze has so craftily designed his story, that thinking of Samantha as a person is almost a given until you catch your brain doing so, step back, and think about the deeper issue of what is going on in the situation. Obviously, as given in the title of the film, such gender specificity and the questions drawn there from is integral to the story being told.
Here is a man so lonely, so desperate that he turns for his most intimate relationships and need for connection, to a computer. It's a heartbreaking thought, when truly pondered. Even his real life connections in the movie, a blind date he goes on Amelia (played by Olivia Wilde), his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), his boss at work Paul (Chris Pratt), most notably his friend Amy (Amy Adams)...none of them feel as real or appear as connected to him as this thing, this object, this unreal entity that is not, and will never be a living being in his life. And yet, it's as real to him as if he had just met the one great love of his life, spoken of and mythologized about since time immemorial, (that is, if one believes in such things).
The character of Theodore's friend, Amy, is also an interesting one, perhaps the only other in the film who is more fully fleshed out. She too has fallen into something of a relationship with her OS, though hers is more of a friendship, rather than a romantic entanglement like Theodore and Samantha's. The intimacy, or lack thereof, that she demonstrates with her OS is visually almost painful to watch, even though on the surface, it starts to feel very normal, since as a viewer you're entirely sucked into this world to a point of nearly no longer thinking it strange (but always on the tip of your mind is the true strange sadness of it all). Amy's life is sort of an embodiment of sadness, right down to the choices made by either Adams, Jonze, or a combination of the two to make Amy appear always in a sort of distressed state, with her hair sort of a mess and her eyes, tired and sad. It's a secondary role over all, to be sure, to Theodore's story, but nevertheless Adams brings her acting chops brilliantly into the part, and it's quite enjoyable, if emotionally wrought, to watch.
The film really does a wonderful job of bringing you deep into the recesses of Theodore's mind, and moreover, into the realm in which Jonze's odd sensibility reigns. You're brought there, but then about three quarters of the way in, you're left wondering where it's about to go, or how you're ever going to step out of it. The story hits a sort of "now what?" moment that fails to bring it to the level of near-perfect storytelling. However, that said, it is a beautiful, melancholy tale, and one that will not soon be forgotten. When Phoenix is old and on his death bed, looking back on his life and career, he can proudly look upon Her and know that another masterful performance has been added to his repertoire.