In the not too distant future, people have forgotten how to write letters to each other. They’ve forgotten how to think creatively. Theodore Twombly is one of the few people who still knows how. He works for the company Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com and speaks poetic prose into his computer, which squiggles cursive onto digital paper after each word. These letters are Theodore’s own creations but they pass as his customers’ caring or romantic thoughts. He’s a bridge for the emotionally and physically disconnected thousands. He transcribes his musings enveloped in a high tech office of primary colors surrounded by an artificially enhanced Los Angeles, now amplified with more skyscrapers, trains, and elevated walkways. People wear buttoned-down pastels and don’t need belts. It’s so beautifully ornate and just slightly off-kilter.
This is the highly innovative and imaginative world director Spike Jonze has created for his quirky, loveable hero Theodore, played exquisitely restrained by Joaquin Phoenix. Her is Jonze’s phenomenal fourth feature and it continues to display his idiosyncratic artistry through both a saccharine and melancholic cerebral story. The film was shot in Shanghai to double as the chic southern California metropolis. You don’t see many cars or trashy streets. People walk around and above the supposed chaos, as if hovering to their destination in the hazy sunlight or night’s warm glow. It’s an inviting place and Jonze let’s us soak up his creation whenever he can. It’s also a small sign that not everything is as it appears.
That’s largely because of a new technological advancement known as OS-1. It’s an intuitive, evolving operating system, a personalized and reflexive Siri you could say. Theodore purchases one and is asked a series of seemingly random questions by the application before he’s assigned to Samantha, whose voice is the wonderfully raspy Scarlett Johansson. He places what looks like a hearing aid in his ear and she introduces herself with some chores. She organizes his emails and cleans up his hard drive. She suggests restaurants and proofreads his daily letters, even offering rhetorical suggestions. She even finds him a date in Olivia Wilde, but it doesn’t pan out.
Soon this relationship blooms into something more. Theodore opens up to Samantha about his impending divorce with Catherine (Rooney Mara) and she compliments his rebounding resolve. She gains vision from his smartphone’s camera, neatly nestled into his front pocket, and he gains perspective. You can sense Theodore’s walls breaking down through this cathartic practice, conversing so effortlessly with someone, really no one (physically, that is). The joy these two reciprocate eventually leads them to sex one night, laced with its inherent challenges. Jonze just lets us listen and blackens the screen. The next morning has that satirical edge and charm to it. Instead of awaking from drunken stupor next to a reclined female body, Theodore awkwardly avoids his earpiece until her wakeup call.
For the night, it’s a transcendent moment, but the obvious physical separation soon seeps into social conscious. What is this perfectly complementary relationship that can be turned on or off? How much does someone need the senses of sight and touch? As Theodore continues this ether enjoyment, he also uproots his marital memories. These are presented in flashbacks that capture Mara’s subtle beauty and pristine look, a woman whom Theodore remorsefully feels he had left emotionally vacant. These feel like small dreams within the lens’s hazy glaze, and Jonze, with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, zooms into Phoenix’s face to capture the small smiles that erupt from beneath his bushy, innocent mustache as he recalls them. Samantha as a machine keeps growing intellectually yet you can’t help but feel, even with sight impossible, that she sees his nostalgic lament.
But Catherine is given an icy appeal because, over signing divorce papers, she doesn’t respect Theodore’s new relationship, one that hinges on a skin-toned Bluetooth. Maybe, you realize, his golden memories aren’t necessarily full of happiness, they’re just memories of human connection. Jonze has fun with this predicament but he also realizes the growing gravity of the situation. Theodore wants someone to hold and Samantha wants to be held. At one point she pushes a willing surrogate into the mix, but the dissonance is too much.
A few weeks ago in Mexico I visited a school for the blind and met the older man in charge. He explained that once he lost his sight in his twenties, he was reborn, and learned to appreciate life in a new way. Sight wasn’t as important as he thought it was. He told us that Helen Keller said if given the option, she would have rather had her hearing back than her sight. “Blindness separates us from things, but deafness separates us from people,” she once said. I suppose they’re both right. This movie forces you to become a better listener because you don’t have two faces to work from. A lot of times, it’s possible to watch a movie on mute and figure out the context of a conversation from inflection. Here, it’s nearly impossible. In fact, it’s the reverse. As Theodore humbly strolls through the city, or sits on the train, there are points you don’t even need the screen. His gaze just wanders off to Samantha’s loving banter.
There are actually a lot of these scenes where Phoenix’s glance falls into the distance. It’s a kind of lonely mellowness. It’s the kind you see in Scarlett Johansson from ten years ago, peering out over Tokyo from her hotel window in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. She and Theodore are at similar junctures in life, and it’s hard to escape categorizing them as projections of each director, both of whom were once married to each other. If Johansson was a trapped marital creature, Theodore plays as a redemptive rebuttal, a thoughtful, caring, and occasionally, innocently disinvested Spike.
Jonze also wrote the script but you can see how his usual writing collaborator Charlie Kauffman still influences him. Amy Adams plays one of Theodore’s best friends, complete with frizzled hair and washed out garb. She’s begun to fall for her OS as well. “Love is socially accepted insanity,” she tells Theodore at one point. The evidence comes in Jonze’s second film Adaptation when Meryl Streep playing a refined Manhattan author falls quizzically for her book’s subject, played by a toothless Floridian Chris Cooper.
Here, love is socially accepted insularity. At one point, as if seeing the world for the first time, Theodore notices everyone walking by him with an earpiece. They’re all having conversations with their own “Samanthas”, but it looks like they’re just talking to themselves. Even Chris Pratt, playing Theodore’s boss, doesn’t flinch when he learns that Samantha is his employee’s girlfriend. These brief shifts of perspectives are so powerful. The whole movie seems so natural watching Theodore talk to Samantha in public, until Jonze turns it into a monologue.
Johansson meanwhile masterfully balances her voice between playful exuberance and existential fear. She listens intently and picks up his moods because it’s her only job. It’s actually genius. People pay to look at Johansson on the screen. Here we can only imagine what she would look like. There’s also the sense that her disembodied quality is some sort of ploy, that this could turn into some kind of twisted thriller. What happens when Theodore turns her off anyway? Her could have easily been I, Robot, or some debilitating moral scolding about severing our human faculties.
But Jonze isn’t interested in a cyber dystopia. Our heavy relationship with technology is the backdrop to man’s emotional suffering and recovery. It quickly hits you. Samantha gives Theodore the desire to establish human connection again. She is more than just an intuitive operating system. She’s a therapist.