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Incarnation

'Her' pits Joaquin Phoenix against the romance of technology

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BYE GOOD It's all about the mustache in Joaquin Phoenix's performance.
  • BYE GOOD It's all about the mustache in Joaquin Phoenix's performance.

Greetings from future Los Angeles! In Her, director-writer Spike Jonze digitally merges that city with today's Shanghai. It's rarely looked better—spread up and out, and crowded but prosperous.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a love-letter writer at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, his heart aching as he sits in an office lined with glowing glass panels. Theodore composes little notes for happy couples, and tries to avoid signing the finishing papers on his divorce. One day, he learns of a new OS, a system essentially like the super-powered granddaughter of Siri. The bubbling, flirtatious voice on his pocket-sized computer calls itself Samantha. Theodore has found a new friend, and more.

There are a thousand ways this slip of an idea could have gone wrong. Essential to the success of the romance is Scarlett Johansson's voice acting. Could it be that the allure of the actress goes so deep that even her voice is rich with it? The other women in the film can't live up to this invisible imago, even a drabbed-down Amy Adams. Olivia Wilde, as Theodore's highly demanding date, is a classic example of how a woman can be so beautiful that she's almost ugly. Just as Samantha is all voice, Rooney Mara, seen in flashback, is the voiceless, moody ex-wife Theodore can hardly bear to think about.

But Samantha isn't a perfect alternative to other women. She pushes back, withdraws, has flares of temper. This unlikely love story stays believable into a third act, as Samantha grows in strength and consciousness.

The film also has a smooth religious side to it, bearing a subtle metaphor about love as enlightenment; it's irresistible with its living, compassionate computers, and its fields of skyscrapers glowing with Pacific sunlight. You sort of ache for wanting it to come true.

'Her' is now playing in select theaters.

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