Release Date: December 18, 2013 (limited); January 10, 2014 (wide)
Runtime: 126 minutes
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix; Scarlett Johansson (voice); Amy Adams; Chris Pratt; Rooney Mara
This one was a total surprise! My expectations were low: another self-consciously quirky Spike Jonze movie with resident Hollywood oddball, Joaquin Phoenix. And while this movie is definitely left-of-center, it is also quite possibly, the most heartfelt and truly tender movies I’ve seen in ages.
Joaquin Phoenix is sensational as Theodore, an under-the-radar, workaday fellow who makes his living writing other people’s letters to their loved ones. I guess it’s possible that a dot-com like this exists, but I’ve certainly never come across one. Plus the fact, I find it a little hard to believe that someone who is essentially a trumped-up Hallmark greeting card writer can afford the type of luxury digs Theodore lives in! I mean, in NYC (this movie takes place in futuristic-ish LA where, for some reason, granddaddy pants are in vogue), his apartment would EASILY run $1.5mil, maybe more.
But, whatever. Theodore is still coming to terms with his recent divorce from his childhood sweetheart, Catherine (Rooney Mara), when he purchases a new operating system for his computer. This proves to be a life-changing purchase. This particular OS is, basically, a real person without the body (that’s a shame since it’s voiced by a phenomenal Scarlett Johansson!). The OS, which calls itself Samantha, can think, feel emotion and crack jokes…all the while doing typical computer stuff like spell checking. Since the computer system configures itself to his specific character preferences, Theodore comes to interact with Samantha as he would any friend. Pretty soon, this user-friendly bonding escalates to a bona fide, albeit unconventional, relationship. Theodore and Samantha even have sex. Well, virtual sex.
Theodore acknowledges that his situation is weird, even seeking relationship advice from his neighbor, Amy (Amy Adams, who is having a very good winter!), who is currently going through a break-up of her own. But then something strange happens. Jonze’s script moves away from the quirky and weird and into the genuine. Theodore’s feelings are real, and relatable to anyone who’s ever truly been in love. He and Samantha have their ups and downs, like any relationship, and they weather them like a true couple. The two of them even go on a double date with Theodore’s office buddy (Chris Pratt) and his girlfriend (a human). Yet, it’s never lost on Theodore and Samantha that she’s a computer program and their love has its limits.
Joaquin Phoenix has never looked more relaxed and at ease on screen. His demeanor is infectious, and it’s easy to smile and laugh with him because he seems so comfortable and, well, charmingly everyman. As the movie goes on and he and Samantha get closer, we witness Theodore coming out of his shell, moving from the stooped shoulders of a nine-to-five drone to someone who begins to enjoy his life and recognize the beauty of each day. It’s a beautiful performance that causes one to momentarily forget that Phoenix is definitely, um, different.
Scarlett Johansson is interesting in this movie, giving one of her best screen performances to date. This feat is even more amazing since she’s never seen! Her character is inanimate and all of her work is done in voice over. But again, she comes across as so relaxed and comfortable in her own self that, were she a human, we’d all want her for a girlfriend (well, maybe not all of us). Phoenix and Johansson seem to really share a chemistry that is extraordinary given that she’s never on screen. Amy Adams is affecting as the neighbor who has her own issues, and also becomes involved (to a much lesser extent) with her own OS, and Chris Pratt is nice and sunny as Theodore’s office pal, Paul.
This movie seems to really hit upon some modern truths in today’s society, mainly people’s need for human interaction and need to feel love and affection from other people. The artificial kinship we feel with technology, whether it’s with our tablets, smartphones, or laptops can never be a substitute for live, actual people and emotion. Granted, this movie takes that notion to an extreme to make a point, but it’s a lesson that I think we fail to realize all too much in today’s world. How much of the work you do in your personal life is via computer? Ordering stuff online, texting every two seconds, social media. This movie makes the argument that we still need to be people living in a social world. Not antisocial typists living in social media.
Bursts of (very funny) humor, typical of Jonze’s offbeat sensibilities, permeate what is, at its fundamental level, a beautiful, elegantly crafted, romantic motion picture.