On the basis of the extensive sneak preview presented at the Toronto International Film Festival Sunday, maverick filmmaker Spike Jonze's next feature looks like a must-see.
"Her" is a near-future period piece exploring the isolation of the digital age. Jonze's first turn as screenwriter/director promises to be as intelligent, emotionally aware and deliciously quirky as "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and "Where the Wild Things Are."
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore, a timid functionary in a firm that takes greeting cards to the next level. He and his coworkers create facsimile handwritten letters for individual clients' loved ones. And the introverted writer appears to be as disconnected as the customers who depend on his imagination to express their deepest private feelings.
When he boots up his home computer's new artificially intelligent operating system, named Samantha, Theodore begins to have intimate conversations with the program. The intuitive Samantha, brought to life through Scarlett Johansson's warm, inviting vocal performance, begins sharing its own more-human-than-human feelings, encouraging Theodore to open up emotionally as he never has before.
Clips featured wordless appearances by Rooney Mara as Theodore's idealized ex-wife, whose loss still affects him deeply. Amy Adams has a juicy, funny role as a programmer creating a computer game in which players vie to be a perfect mom. They win prizes for race-driving the kids to school on time and collect jealousy points from other moms if they bring cupcakes for the class.
The film, which is nearly complete after 14 months of editing and postproduction work, features a sumptuous and symbolic color palette of Valentine reds and dull beige tones. The sound design is as rich and textured as a radio play. Phoenix carries several scenes of dialogue with the unseen Johansson in tightly framed closeups, negotiating the poignant sequences with touching delicacy.
Jonze, who is a sort of perpetual motion machine working on several projects simultaneously, explained that it's his nature to multitask, and to trust his gut. He noted that in one short film he cast the then-unknown Andrew Garfield (the current Spider-Man) because they met by chance and Jonze had fun playing Frisbee with him.
"Her" is scheduled for release in January.

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