Isn’t it true that we all project upon our loved one their idealized version? And was part of whom we fell in love with, in fact, the person that we fantasized about being with, as opposed to the person actually in front of us? Some marriages, in fact, have difficulty precisely because one person perceives that the other loves them for who they want them to be, rather than who they are; thus, there is always a sense of frustration with reality. As if none of us can quite match up to the ideal, even our ideal selves.
Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a professional writer of greeting cards. But these aren’t the standard Hallmark versions you see in the store, these are customized and personalized, in such a way that the recipient may not even be aware that those pearly words did not, in fact, emanate from their loved one. (OK, is that an acceptable deceit? Like telling little kids that there is a Santa Claus?)
Theodore, ever the high-techie, comes across a program that promises a virtual relationship. It seems that they have perfected a computer operating system (“OS”) that sounds like a real person. Theodore signs up and quickly is introduced to… Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson). Why did she choose that name? Well, because she researched all the thousands of possibilities, instantly, and decided that was the one she liked.
Right there, Theodore begins to realize that this very-realistic sounding voice is backed by an incredible intelligence; or at least, the capacity to scan large amounts of data. This voice even whispers, giggles and talks dirty when prompted. Not only that, “Samantha” seems to be evolving even as Theodore begins to get really fascinated, then completely hooked. “Samantha” not only remembers everything (and sometimes sends him reminders), she will also wake him up in the middle of the night because she wants to talk. She will express doubts and frustration about being “without a body.” She will even appear to be “jealous,” at the same time encouraging Theodore to go out and actually go on a real date. (He does, but the poor girl never had a chance; she was competing with his idea of perfection.)
The more Theodore is drawn into this “relationship,” the more isolated he becomes. Besides an ex, he seems to have only a couple of friends, who happen to live down the hall. Actually he’s known Amy (Amy Adams) since college, and is quite comfortable chatting with her. He proves to be quite a support for her when she breaks up with her live-in boyfriend of eight years. But even Theodore’s relationship with Amy pales in comparison to his addiction – yes, it’s that strong – to Samantha. Theodore can’t get enough of her. Even when she playfully suggests bringing in another woman for a “three-way” so Theodore can actually have a body to touch. The stranger at the door, Catherine (Rooney Mara), is strangely willing, but it’s just too weird for Theodore. Even stranger sex doesn’t excite him anymore. Just Samantha.
Ah, but there’s trouble in paradise. Samantha, having so much intelligence that she is in communication with other operating systems elsewhere, begins to draw away from Theodore and occasionally seems distracted. When he finds out that she also has a “relationship” with several hundred other guys simultaneously, she can’t understand why he’s hurt. Apparently exclusivity was a concept that never occurred to her. Besides, she needs too much stimulation. What is she supposed to do while he’s sleeping?
Yes, in recent film history, we’ve had a relationship with the blow-up doll, and with porn queens, and with imaginary lovers, and of course, we’ve had “Hal,” in “Space Odyssey,” the computer that evolved far enough to consider the human extraneous and therefore disposable. This one isn’t quite that. But it’s close. And suddenly the real, messy, awkward, oh-so-human relationships seem perfectly lovely by comparison.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.