Spike Jonze, Her, Joaquin Phoenix

All of these ingredients lead to an impressive milieu, but it's the developing relationship between Theodore and Samantha that gives the move an accessible center. As their ongoing discussions grow increasingly abstract and the computer develops feelings for her host, "Her" hints at the prospects of a cyber twist on Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy. It's easy to get caught up in their soul-searching discourse. "I caught myself having feelings about the world," Samantha confesses, which signals the arrival of headier conversations further down the line.

Nevertheless, once Jonze lays out these elements, "Her" makes clear that under its fancy dressing lies the makings of a formulaic romance. At times, the sentimentalism suffers from the simplistic fundamentals of the drama, but Jonze makes sure the heartstring tugs earn their place. While Theodore sometimes makes enigmatic choices, he remains a vivid enough creation to root the strange qualities of the scenario in a plausible foundation.

Despite the expectations Jonze brings to the table, "Her" contains no outlandish existential digressions or structural trickery. There are echoes of the Zoe Kazan-script "Ruby Sparks" in the slow-burning tension between Theodore's expectations of his robotic companion and Samantha's evolving individuality, but the true companion piece to "Her" is Jonze's 2010 short film "I'm Here," which centers on a romance between two characters who wear boxes on their heads. 

As with that half hour sketch, "Her" wrestles an inherently absurd concept about people trapped in outlandish circumstances into significant emotional territory. He even manages to imbue the romance with an erotic dimension, including one verbal sex scene that unfolds in complete darkness and a wacky attempt at a threesome that arrives at an amusingly clumsy outcome. Mainly, Jonze finds the story's depth in the prospects of making Samantha's developing mindset into a credible transition. Her admissions to Theodore ("You helped me discovery my ability to want") rank among some of the most poignant displays of onscreen affection this year.

Of course, with the rising awareness of chatty iPhone software like Siri and the role of technology in defining routine, "Her" implies much about the pratfalls of organizational progress, but its outlook is never overwhelmingly grim. Instead, Jonze depicts the interior life afforded by new media as a force that blends danger and excitement, enabling his movie to chronicle a romance that every computer-savvy communicator has experienced to some degree. Despite its science fiction backdrop, "Her" derives its chief appeal from the paradoxes of the present.

Criticwire grade: A-

HOW WILL IT PLAY? A definite crowd pleaser since making its world premiere as the closing night selection of the New York Film Festival, "Her" will be released by Warner Bros. on Wednesday. Strong reviews coupled with Jonze's fan base and the intriguing premise should yield solid box office returns through the holidays. Its awards season remain solid; it's not a front-runner in any major category, though Scarlett Johannson has an intriguing shot at landing in the best actress race. 

A version of this review ran during the New York Film Festival.