In the near future, Joaquin Phoenix plays nebbish writer Theodore Twombly, who works for a website which sends "beautiful, handwritten" letters to order. After a bad break-up, he now lives alone and has a social life that's on the critical list. With few friends, he sees the answer to his loneliness in an artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha. Superficially, she is there to organise his life, which she does with alarming efficiency, apparently anticipating his desires and wishes. Soon Theo finds himself falling in love with the effervescent presence - and she reciprocates.
And that's where this film missteps. I'm calling this Spike Jonze's mid-life crisis movie. Jonze takes a whimsical premise that would have made a beautiful short film or story and stretches it beyond breaking point. Her is a male fantasy writ large. There is a farcical sequence where Samantha literally begs Theodore to have a threesome so that she can experience what it is like to have a body - even if it is by proxy. The third party she enlists is not a prostitute, but someone who simply wants to experience the "purity" of their love. "Why would someone do something like that?" asks Theodore. Why, indeed. Of course it ends badly.
Jonze makes more than a passing nod to Philip K Dick's story, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", famously adapted into the film Bladerunner helmed by Ridley Scott. While Scott made the story into a futuristic film noir, Jonze goes in the opposite direction suffusing his film with sunshine and light, and turning it into a love story. And while Scott gave us a dystopian view of urban life, Jonze sets his story in an ethnically cleansed and sanitised Los Angeles, one that will be virtually unrecognisable to Angelenos. Only once does he turn to darkness - when Theodore and Samantha "consummate" their relationship, Theo bringing her to climax surprisingly quickly. And herein lies the rub. Her is such a disappointingly misogynistic film. Why would an entity of vastly superior intelligence bother with such a depressive no-hoper? Despite his apparent powers of perception, Theo certainly never stops to question Samantha's attraction to him - and Jonze does only briefly.
When Theo does go on an actual date arranged by his friend Amy (played by Amy Adams), it is with a beautiful woman played by Olivia Wilde, known only as "Blind Date." We see them bonding over "Asian-fusion" food and alcohol. And, of course, Theodore's Harvard-educated date falls for him - all without one line of dialogue to suggest why she would. Apparently, in Jonze's world, any single woman over thirty should be grateful for a guy with a pulse and a job.
Time and time again I have had cause to wonder how male science-fiction writers can imagine a world where we have mastered technology but cling desperately to 1950s social mores. When Theodore visits Amy after her marriage breakdown, she shows him the computer game she is working on. Its title? Perfect Mom, where we see a housewife feeding her kids breakfast, then competing in the school run. In another scene, in which Samantha recruits her body surrogate, we see her greet Theodore in a way worthy of June Cleever.
We wait for the inevitable to happen, for Samantha to malfunction. But when she does, there is no explanation given. We guess that the OS has been so successful that humans are opting out of "real" connections and experiences. With Samantha gone from his life, Theodore finally reaches out to his newly single friend, Amy, who has also lost her OS love.
We are all imperfect and that's okay, Jonze seems to be saying. But this is one whimsical life lesson I can live without.
Her is on general release on February 14