“Where’d you get your name?” asks Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix). “I gave it to myself, actually.” The name is Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) and she’s an operating system, newly installed on Theodore’s machinery. That Samantha names herself, that she understands and presents herself as a self, sets up a few questions for a movie named Her, as opposed to, say, Samantha.
One of these questions has to do with Theodore’s understanding of himself. A lumpily awkward fellow who lives in slightly futury LA, where he works writing passionate letters for strangers at Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com. Her opens on his face as he composes, that is, dictates, his computer turning his words into a digital image resembling handwriting. “Before I was just living my life like I knew everything,” he says, “Suddenly this bright light just hit me and that light was you.” The camera pulls out to show his screen, his cubicle, and other composers also speaking to machines; complimented on his skills, he shrugs more than once, “They’re just letters.” That is, they’re means to mark his limits, to underline that he’s feeling vicariously but wants to feel for “real.”
This question of what’s real is of course key, if prosaic. Going home after work via startlingly clean public transport, surrounded by forgettable individuals equally engrossed by the screens in their hands,Theodore tells his handheld to “play melancholy music.” If his personal messages are resolutely uninteresting, he’s distracted momentarily and rather vividly by a TMZ-style headline followed by a starlet’s “provocative pregnancy photos.” Later that night, the inevitable disappointment of other people’s fantasies is hammered home when he essays sex on a chat-line (signing on as bigguyfourbyfour) with sexykitten (an unseen Kristen Wiig), whose most fervent desire is to be choked with the dead cat she tells him he can find “next to the bed.” As she pants and instructs, the camera remains over his face, in the dark, his eyes darting as he strains to deliver to her desires even as he’s visibly horrified.
His fear is of a piece with another question, how to negotiate someone else’s ideas and needs, or more simply, someone else who is not you. Following a seconds-long data-gathering interview in which Theodore can’t quite find a word to describe his relationship with his mother, he meets Samantha, sold to him as “an intuitive entity,” that is, an undemanding other who “listens to you and understands you and knows you.” However real or fictional she might be to herself, Samantha is his perfect projection, his manic pixie dream girl. As such she fills the hole left by Theodore’s failed relationship with Katherine (Rooney Mara). This past that structures his present appears in frequent gauzy-light flashbacks wherein the couple laughs and cuddles and moves furniture. Now, her lawyer sends emails asking him to sign the divorce papers.
As Samantha brings this news, she also encourages Theodore to date other girls; the one played by Olivia Wilde is so despairing and needy that Samantha is transformed instantly into the only possible romantic object. It helps that Samantha confesses to jealousy, reciprocating Theodore’s burgeoning but still timid hope that he might create a relationship with a voice. The idea takes on a kind of shape as he voices it, telling his best friend (and more conventionally romantic object) Amy (Amy Adams) that his girlfriend is an OS. When Amy approves, even admits she’s been spending time with her OS, Theodore, less original in his thinking than self-protective, takes next steps: he and Samantha go to the mall, to the beach, on a double date with two fully embodied entities.
As Samantha begins to have her own ideas about the relationship, Theodore faces a next question, how to traverse the distance between his fantasy and someone else’s, in order to create a semblance, a fiction of what’s real. This is a good question, one that Samantha poses beautifully, in her shift from a her to a self, independent and perplexing: “What makes me me,” she explains early on, “is my ability to grow through my experiences.” Ding ding ding: Theodore will be doing some growing too.
Samantha’s expanding consciousness means that her own sense of what’s real and what she wants are overlapping and not. “I want to learn everything about everything,” she gushes in a moment where Theodore’s face runs through a range of responses, thrilled, frightened, curious, lonely. “I want to eat it all up. I want to discover myself.” When Theodore pauses at this early point in their relationship, she notices, and assuages him, insisting on his part in her: “You helped me discover my ability to want.”
It may be true, that he helps her, but he’ll never know, for once Samantha is a self she’s also a fiction, as much as Theodore is also, her projection and yours. If he might mirror you, so too might Samantha, playing the ultimate Girl in a Movie. “You’re mine or you’re not mine,” he worries. Her response is what he should expect: “No Theodore, I’m yours and I’m not yours.”
And so another question, plain to you from the first frame but not occurring to Theodore until late, which is how to sort out selves without bodies, how to understand and know (as Samantha is promised to do for Theodore, for you) an other. Theodore’s limits emerge as he finally confronts Samantha’s distance, her evolution apart from him, her existence when he’s not addressing or imagining her. Why does she affect a breathy catch in her voice, he wonders, when she doesn’t even need to breathe?
And so, another question. For this one, the answer seems measure of Theodore’s needs, needs the movie suggests are essentially human, though in another version of this movie, the one Samantha might make, they might be more particularly male human. Samantha calls it an “affectation,” adopted because it seemed to please him. Whatever her answer might measure, the question — why pretend for someone else? why lie why wish why want why project? — lingers.