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Joaquin Phoenix in Her. Picture: AP

Her sounds like a gimmick. In not-too-distant-future Los Angeles, Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with an operating system, voiced by a never-seen- on-screen Scarlett Johansson. As an elevator pitch, it gets a grin. But as a film, it transcends quirk and mere novelty. A Spike Jonze love story, read the promotional posters that feature the director's name next to Phoenix's face and penetrating blue eyes.

That simple, classic description - love story - is the most accurate way to describe the best film yet from one of the era's most playful and ambitious directors.

After all, the movie is not called It or OS or Virtual Love. It's called Her. By the end of the movie, viewers won't ask how could he fall in love with a machine. They'll ask, how could he not fall in love with her. The relationship that unfolds between Phoenix's Theodore and Johansson's Samantha - the discovery, vulnerability, heartache - is real.

Of course, the notion of reality is one that Jonze has toyed with and gleefully distorted over the course of his career, from the portal into the body of the titular actor in Being John Malkovich to the extrasensory fantasy world of Where the Wild Things Are to whatever it was that happened in the final third of Adaptation.

Ask Jonze to explain his version of reality and the answer you get is honest, tangled and just out of reach. Pretty much how you'd expect it to be.

"I feel like every movie, I've learned more and more about what I think of the world and what I'm trying to figure out," says Jonze, 44, who established himself as the definitive alt-rock video director of the early 1990s with Sabotage by the Beastie Boys, Buddy Holly by Weezer and Praise You by Fatboy Slim.

"But in terms of what's real to me . . . I think if something's emotionally real - and I'm not even talking about in movies or in art, but in life - you can't really argue with that even if your intellectual mind might know differently. Your emotional mind doesn't. It doesn't matter how smart you are.

"He creates this sense of an alternate reality that still feels very grounded and real," says actor Chris Pratt (Parks and Recreation) who plays Theodore's gregarious co-worker, Paul, in the film. "He touches on these themes that are very practical but in a world that is a small slice of a different world."

The world Jonze creates in Her is an LA that is far from the dystopian nightmare seen in many future-set movies. The Los Angeles of . . . is it 2040? Something like that. Seems like a pretty nice place. There's high-speed rail, minimal traffic, men wear goofy/charming high-waisted pants, people still go to the beach.

"Everything is nice and comfortable and yet he's still lonely and longing for connection," Jonze says of Theodore. "It seemed like it would hurt more, in this beautiful pop world, to have that deep melancholy."

As the forlorn Theodore, Phoenix reaches yet another career height in Her. He spends much of the film on screen by himself, showing both sides of an intensely blossoming relationship.

Jonze, who is always soft-spoken and careful with his words, becomes even more selective when describing working with Phoenix.

"Without sounding dramatic, it was a real" - he pauses, not for effect, but searching for the right phrase - "really important life experience that I got to have with him, making this."

Jonze compares working with Phoenix on a computer love story to working with the child actor Max Records on Where the Wild Things Are. Both versions of a fantasy were an "adventure" for Jonze and his actors. With Phoenix especially, though, he calls it "hard to talk about too much," it was an "intimate adventure".

"He's challenging in the best way," Jonze continues about Phoenix. "None of his challenges are coming from a place of ego, a place of pride. They're coming from: 'This doesn't feel right. I don't know. It's me, I know I'm being stupid, I'm sorry.' And often times, when he challenges is when I'm forced to raise my game. To dig deeper . . . and that's what made it such a great experience, the way we pushed each other."

It took Jonze a while to find exactly what he wanted with Her. Specifically with Her. After wrapping shooting with British actress Samantha Morton in the starring role, Jonze decided she just wasn't the right fit and Johansson was brought on to provide the voice of Samantha. "I think in the ideal world, I would have had somebody unknown," Jonze says. "But it needed somebody with a presence. It needed somebody who was a great actress, that has confidence, that is attractive and has charisma. All of that comes through in her voice."

The role isn't your typical voice-over role like in an animated movie. Johansson has to play Samantha as an entity that literally comes into existence at the click of a button and quickly proceeds to become "a fully formed being trying to figure out who she is and having these sort of existential questions the same way we have existential questions," Jonze says.

The film is garnering near- universal praise from critics, including earning top honours from the National Board of Review and a Golden Globe best picture nomination in the comedy category. It's not exactly a riot but has plenty of laughs, some of them provided by Jonze himself, who supplies the voice of a particularly vulgar videogame character.

Whether general audiences will be as receptive to the themes and ideas is less certain. After a packed Washington screening that was followed by a Q&A session with Jonze, one viewer asked if he found it unsettling that the only sex scene in the movie featured a person by himself.

Jonze listened politely to the question - which seemed to completely miss the point of the entire world he'd created, where a man and a disembodied voice fall deeply in love. He had a thoughtful answer ready: Some people may find the central conceit creepy, while some may find it sweet.

In conversation the next day, he crystallises what makes Theodore and Samantha work. "When he accepts her for what she is. When she's not pretending to be something she's not and when he's not wanting her to be something she's not. Which is any age-old relationship," he says.

"When you stop projecting on the other person, when you stop pretending you're someone else, when you actually get to know each other."