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In the future in which Spike Jonze’s new film Her is set, Los Angeles is a simulacrum of today’s Tokyo, except a faint collective murmur has replaced the feverish cacophony of Tokyo’s streets. Trains swoosh in and out, and people talk to their unbelievably slender devices in animated murmurs. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) writes love letters for a living, because at this time letters are actually in the realm of the exotic. Except for brief encounters with a friend Amy (Amy Adams), an embittered video game developer, Theodore has no human interaction. He plays a video game which requires him to wirelessly propel a digital Sisyphus towards an illusory destination. He plays the ukulele once in a while. And he often plugs in to Internet porn. In his 40s, Theodore is estranged from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), and his complete devastation because of it is clear, because Jonze cuts to flashbacks of softly lit, romantic scenes between Catherine and a happy-looking Theodore.

Jonze’s writing and direction in Her, nominated in the Best Picture as well as Best Original Screenplay categories at the Oscars, is cloyingly hipster. Its derivative coolness is entertaining in the first 45 minutes. From the middle, the narrative swells with flowery, pop-philosophizing nuggets about the nature of love and existence. Towards the end, watching it is tiresome. Lessons in spirituality have clearly not lost currency in America. The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema—he incidentally also shot Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy—efficiently provides a synthetic, burnt-out look to the film.

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Amy Adams and Joaquin Phoenix in a still

And so, lonely and lost Theodore buys an efficient new operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson in voice). She talks to him, and, heck, feels for him—this OS1 even has a moment of possessiveness about her man. Samantha, full of insight about life, is also sensuous boost to Theodore’s life. His one or two human friends easily understand and accept Samantha. What then could be the perils of this romance?

Johansson uses her voice with amazing cleverness, and becomes a character in the film. The climactic surprise, although weak, is possible because you begin to think of Samantha as an evolving character. In spite of Samantha’s fuzzy lines and cloudy thoughts—for example, she composes a piece of music and suggests it is the equivalent of a photograph of Theodore and her together—the operating system is the only really interesting thing in Her.

In attitude and pace, Jonze’s film has some similarity with Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. The hipness in Coppola’s movie worked because it was less dependent on words than on a deadpan, smug and mostly quiet look at human connection.

Jonze does not effectively portray a digitally charged dystopia although he suggests that LA’s future is depressingly empty. His primary concern seems to be to make the future a suitable context to portray the predicament of a solipsistic man-child, evidently a timeless specimen. Theodore needs love and compassion to unfold for him according to his dictates, and only a cyber creature with a gorgeous voice fits the bill. As his former wife accuses him, Theodore needs a woman who would think and feel the way he wants her to.

But Theodore is not the shortcoming in Her—Phoenix makes enough out of the character. As cinema, it falls short of greatness because of Jonze’s strange ambiguity about his protagonist’s world; the verbose writing ultimately does not say or show anything substantial about the future Jonze projects.

Her releases in theatres on Friday

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