What's strange is that the value of this movie is no greater than Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra Terrestrial
(1982). An alien being enters a little boy's life and he falls in love
with it. That alien then leaves the little boy to go off into the sky,
into space somewhere. Here, Oscar-nominee Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line and The Master)
stars as Theodore Twobly, a man in his mid to late thirties, maybe
older who mostly behaves like a little boy has an "alien" enter his
life. The alien in this case is a palm-size, artificially-intelligent
computer. He falls in love with it, but ultimately it leaves him to go
off into the clouds or wherever the Internet lives. The lessons gleaned
from E.T. the Extra Terrestrial are ones that are a bit more
relevant than the ones proffered by writer-director Spike Jonze. His is
just a character study in loneliness and mankind's inability to connect
or communicate properly with one another.
Theodore was married to a beautiful, smart and sweet, young woman named Catherine, played by Rooney Mara. Their relationship is revealed in flashback. Everything seems fine and happy, but they separate because Catherine feels that Theodore holds back and often has trouble communicating things or being fully honest.
This flies in the face of Theodore's job, which is a writing gig where he writes letters for people to and from their significant others. It's high irony. Yet, it continues this theme that apparently in this world where Theodore lives, people can't communicate properly, so they turn to a 3rd party to do it for them.
Jonze's world doesn't feel like one that evolved from the one we live in now. Theodore lives in Los Angeles, a slightly futuristic version of that west coast city, and the way Jonze frames and depicts the city is in a way that I've hardly ever seen, if ever. He seems confined mostly to downtown L.A., and there are not cars ever shown or any shots of the city's infamous freeways. Jonze makes L.A. appear to be a walking city, which for some it probably is.
Yet, the fashion choices and style at times harken back to decades ago, probably as far back as the 1950s. Jonze has Phoenix as well as co-star Chris Pratt who plays Theodore's friend and co-worker Paul wear these throwback moustaches and shirts tucked into trousers with a hiked up waist-line. This is even when they're outside of work.
The company where Theodore is employed is one that is built on throwbacks. The company creates letters that appear to be hand-written. Yet, it's all synthesized on a computer. Theodore lives in a fairly nice apartment in what appears to be in a skyscraper in L.A. It's probably prime real estate. Yet, the idea that this writing job could afford him that feels preposterous, unless his company's clients are filthy rich. Jonze never explains or hints at the state of this economy.
However, I accept it because it could just be an exaggerated or futuristic type of a Hallmark card. With the exception of Paul, many of the characters have communication and relationship issues. This is perhaps Jonze's prediction for humanity's future, the inability to communicate without the help of 3rd parties.
Of course, the bigger theme at work is the notion of humans taking things that are artificially made and trying to pass them off as something natural or genuine. Theodore's job is the first clear example. The other main example is Samantha, the name given to the palm-size, artificially intelligent computer who is Theodore's "E.T."
The problem is that never at any time do we think or feel that she's artificial in any real way. The palm-size computer is very much reminiscent of the smart phones that people use today like Apple's iPhone. That iPhone currently has a function called "Siri" that is voice-activated and voice-responsive, but no one would ever confuse "Siri" for Scarlett Johansson's vocal performance of Samantha. Never did it feel as if Theodore spoke to a machine. From the very first second her voice is heard, she sounds like a living and breathing woman on the other end of the phone.
There is some suggestion that an evolution would occur. Her voice would perhaps start as "Siri" and advance to something totally convincing, but she's convincing from the jump. In this, the fact that Samantha is a computer program is nothing more than a gimmick. A sci-fi carrot that Jonze dangles in front in a vain attempt to make this film grander than it is.
What it is simply is Phoenix walking around L.A. and having phone sex for nearly two hours. Granted, a lot of it is funny and charming. A scene with Kristen Wiig is particularly hilarious and Phoenix's performance is flawless, but his character's journey is no better than that of Brian Geraghty's in Easier With Practice (2010).
I probably would have liked the movie more if during the surrogate scene, instead of some random foreign actress, the actual Scarlett Johansson entered and was the veritable ventriloquist dummy.
Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 6 mins.