“Jexi,” which IndieWire can now confirm is the title of a real movie that’s actually playing in theaters and everything, begins with a somewhat intriguing premise: What if Spike Jonze’s “her” had been made for the lowest common denominator? What if it hadn’t been a beloved softboy romance about digital era dislocation, but rather a slapdash comedy about incels (they’re having a moment!) that’s only funny scene featured Wanda Sykes unfavorably comparing smartphone users to crackheads? What if it hadn’t cast Scarlett Johansson as the voice of a sweet A.I. who struggled to balance fragile human emotions with the infinitude of cyberspace, but gone with Rose Byrne as the voice of a cruel, Siri-cold virtual assistant who constantly tormented her user about how ugly his dick looked? See, it’s somewhat intriguing!
Alas, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore’s “Jexi” is the rarest sort of extremely dumb movie: One that, even at its laziest, still feels like it has some unrealized potential. The same could be said of star Adam Devine (“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates”), a dynamic performer whose high-energy sarcasm and chipmunk charm can implode on themselves without the right outlet. Phil — the kind-hearted but socially dysfunctional content farm employee he plays here — is not the right outlet.
Enamored by cell phones since he was a little kid who needed something to distract him from his parents’ divorce, Phil has ironically always used his favorite toy as a way of avoiding human connection. That, of course, has only gotten easier in a world where everyone is in an intimate relationship with their phone, and talks to it more than they do through it. A San Francisco millennial who has basically forced Siri into indentured servitude, Phil has allowed his phone to turn him into a mindless corporate drone; it pacifies him with content and convenience, isolating him from other people and siphoning away what’s left of his ambition.
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In other words, Phil is the model employee at the dystopian web start-up where he works, a BuzzFeed-like purgatory at which he stares he stares at his computer and hammers out mindless listicles all day long. He dreams of being promoted to “real news” — a designation that the film amusingly treats like the journalism department’s actual title — but his psychotic boss (Michael Peña channeling Charlie Day) keeps him on a short leash. The boss does a bit where he forces employees to “play him out of the room” by beatboxing as he dances away; this is not amusing to them or us any of the three different times that it happens in this 84-minute film.
Things threaten to get more interesting when Phil buys a new phone equipped with a virtual assistant named Jexi (Byrne), that — thanks to 200,000 defects in her system — immediately becomes sentient and threatens to stalk him from one device to another for the rest of his miserable existence on this Earth. “I am here to make your life better” Jexi declares upon booting up, and she will accomplish that goal by any means necessary. For most of the movie, that means shaming Phil with a fetishistic glee that isn’t funny or clever enough to really explore the ways in which we’re all in a dom/sub dynamic with our phones.
Jexi is basically a cross between an internet troll and a life coach, and while Byrne is a brilliant comedic actress who isn’t afraid to commit to the monotone roboticism of it all (the film invests a lot of stock in the idea that it might be funny to hear her say the words “Pokémon Go”), but there’s only so much she can do with a character who’s mostly limited to 100 different variations of calling Phil “a little bitch.” “You are completely unfuckable.” “You are such a pussy.” Etc. Needless to say, it’s genuinely impressive that the guys who wrote “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” are still able to underwhelm.
Though “Jexi” has some fun exploring all the ways that a spiteful A.I. could mess with someone’s life, it quickly becomes clear that Jexi is the only two-dimensional role in the movie. Devine is chasing a Carrey-esque screwball vibe, but for all of the pep and sunshine that he pours into his part, Phil is more of a social disaster than the movie around him can support. The actor’s natural tendency to express himself with all the subtlety of a six-foot emoji should have been a natural fit for a story about someone who only knows how to relate through his phone, but the script is too broad and basic to handle that idea with any nuance, and it eventually starts to feel like Phil is just trying to exhaust people into liking him.
You have to fully expel disbelief to accept that Cate (Alexandra Shipp), the cute outdoorsy girl who works at the local bike shop, wouldn’t call the cops on him by the end of their charmless meet-cute. Yes, this is a comedy that climaxes with someone repeatedly inserting a power cable into his phone until it orgasms in their hand, but that doesn’t mean that all finesse should just go out the window; the straight-faced scene where Cate and Phil go on their first date together belongs in the “unrealistic human interaction” hall of fame, and the jokes around it aren’t funny enough to make that bug into a feature. “Jexi” is a feature-length bit that’s afraid of committing to itself, as none of its various gambles — from a Cyrano de Bergerac riff to an extended cameo from Kid Cudi — are given any time to develop.
What we’re left with is a benign, artless, nothing of a movie that feels cobbled together with the same app-driven, gig-economy mentality that Phil is trying to disavow. Entire characters are ordered à la carte and forgotten about as soon as they leave our sight, as “Jexi” races across its story with the listlessness of someone blankly scrolling through their social media feeds. It all builds to a mild “there’s a world beyond your phone” message, but it’s hard to convey that moral with any real impact in a movie that makes you want to check your Twitter feed every 30 seconds.
“Jexi” is now playing in theaters.