3 1/2 stars

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, the voice of Scarlett Johansson

Director: Spike Jonze

Running time: 120 minutes

Rated: R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity

King of quirky Spike Jonze sets out in search of the profound in his profoundly simply sci-fi romance "Her." A "How I Met Your OS (operating system)" comedy, "Her" is a search for the essence of what we really want out of love, separating the physical from the psycho-spiritual meeting of the minds.

An austere film of heartache and self-assessment, it has an aching loneliness about it that only a movie about a man who falls in love with a sentient computer-generated voice and mind could manage.

Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore, a professional love-letter writer of the not-that-distant future. He is a true romantic and is good at his job. But he is deflated and depressed and alone. He's going through a divorce.

Smart phones have become brilliant phones in this future, connecting Theodore to all manner of media by his compact, wallet-sized companion. Can't sleep? Anonymous, random phone-sex chat is but a voice command away.

Then he downloads a new "intuitive entity," an OS that is a learning, empathetic, all-knowing companion. "Samantha," unlike his testy, brittle ex-wife (Rooney Mara), "gets" him. In an instant.

Jonze ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation") cast the voices in this movie of a world of disembodied voices with extraordinary care, none more than his "Samatha." Scarlett Johansson's scratchy, sexy, playful voice is used to great effect as we listen to this machine-generated person learn about Theodore, sympathize with him and fall in love with him. And Phoenix, doing almost all his scenes solo, lets us believe that this crazy notion — which is really just an short extrapolation from where our plugged in and tuned out society is now — is real. Theodore falls for Samantha. Hard.

He makes the leap from "I can't believe I'm having this conversation with my computer" to hurting Samantha's feelings. Because Samatha has feelings.

Jonze lets us laugh at the idea of this in a lot of ways, because on first blush, this is ridiculous. But as vulnerable Theodore botches a blind date (Olivia Wilde) simply because he's too damaged to let good things happen, the sensitivity of "Her" steps forward.

The fashions are dress-down funky — Hushpuppies have won the shoe wars. But it's no great leap to see legions of commuters chattering away, seemingly to themselves, earbuds plugged in, human race tuned out. We're living in that world now.

And as Theodore and then others around him (Amy Adams and the omnipresent Chris Pratt play friends) accept this "relationship," you start to wonder just which tech companies are working on this final social frontier. Is there an OS that can be a balm to a lonely world?

And this being a romance, you wonder where it can go or how it might end? Jonze cleverly ponders the soon-to-be-ponderable?

Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have logged on at all?