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Spike Jonze is, despite proof consisting only of four features, one of the best filmmakers working today. His latest, Her handily verifies it. It seems difficult to justify seeing it on paper, but look at the evidence closer: Quickly evolving from producer/co-creator of MTV’s juvenilia celebration Jackass, to directing music videos (granted, award-winning ones), Jonze saw an Oscar nod for Best Director his first time out at the helm of a feature-length film (Being John Malkovich). He and eminently postmodern screenwriter Charlie Kaufmann followed up Malkovich with the equally solipsistic Adaptation., a film that, while just as assured a directorial effort as its predecessor, undeniably read more like a personal statement by the latter of the two partners.

Then, he achieved the seemingly impossible task of adapting the late Maurice Sendak’s bedtime classic, Where the Wild Things Are, in a way that not only made its notorious crank of an author happy, but simultaneously distilled and embellished the story to a form that so perfectly fit the new medium, it may compete with its own source material for imaginations captured in the coming generations. There was a trajectory forming across these three films, and it took until now to see it: This time, Jonze has summoned his source material from thin air. Serving as his own screenwriter, Jonze undoubtedly dug deep into his own cobbled-together experiences as both someone who has suffered through divorce to produce a film that will slug it out with the big boys come Oscar time.

Her centers around Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), ghostwriter
of “personalized” greeting cards and love letters, working at the firm, Beautiful Handwritten Letters (a company providing a service that, incredibly, does not already exist). Twombly has grown increasingly antisocial following the separation from his wife (Rooney Mara). He’s dragging his feet signing the divorce papers, and generally doing a terrific job rebuffing the attempts of his BFF Amy (Amy Adams) to set him up on dates. It’s only after Twombly upgrades his desktop PC’s operating system with a staggeringly intuitive artificial intelligence, “Samantha,” (Scarlett Johansson) that he begins to emerge from his self-imposed hermetic lifestyle.

But the A.I. is so good, it not only functions as a perfected iteration of Siri, it’s capable of forming an emotional bond with its user—not to mention the angst and existential crises that invariably come with those bonds. This technology exists within a gorgeously realized setting that will, no doubt, prove a prescient manifestation of the near-future thanks to K.K. Barrett (who’s now 4/4 as Jonze’s production designer).

Far from taking the comfortable approach as yet another cautionary sci-fi tale of technology run amok, Her isn’t interested in holding a dystopic mirror up to society. Jonze instead posits a wonderfully original alternative to Skynet and the Matrix—in the future, the first self-aware A.I. won’t destroy the world, but it may just break your heart. If future versions of Siri are as full of the simulated empathy—not to mention the sexy, sexy voice of Johansson—it’s not unreasonable to believe that the people inhabiting this world would be willing, even eager, to overcome the stigma as close friendships and romances with one’s operating system become another accepted part of 21st Century life. And that’s how Jonze and the cast treat their creations—with temperance and compassion, instead of judgmentally smartass defensiveness, or even mild horror.

Speaking of cast, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance has to be called out. In a movie that hinges so much on so many emotionally naked conversations with naught but a disambiguated voice, Phoenix is nothing shy of a minor miracle. If his powerhouse turn in P.T. Anderson’s The Master justified forgiveness for those weird couple of years that resulted in I’m Still Here, his compellingly tender portrayal of the scarred, gun-shy, newly single man in Her might put us all back in his debt.

It’s still boggling to consider how, with a mere four films in the can, Jonze has become a filmmaker of such importance. How has it come together? Much as with the artifice that exemplifies Twombly’s day job, and the pre-programmed algorithms that dictate Samantha’s behavior, the specifics are both opaque and unimportant: It’s the eventual assemblage and outcome that gives it all meaning. And Spike Jonze has happened to put it all together much faster than most.

Director: Spike Jonze
Writer: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt
Release Date: Jan. 10, 2014