'Jexi': Film Review

Hey Alexa: Get me a script doctor.
10/11/2019

A shy man is remade by his phone's digital assistant in Jon Lucas and Scott Moore's comedy.

There should be an award for those actors, usually but not always women, who can project a natural and engaging personality as a film's love interest while being forced to behave in ways no real person ever would. In 2019 that award would go to Alexandra Shipp as Cate, the wish-fulfillment device in Jon Lucas and Scott Moore's Jexi. Playing the smart, spirited entrepreneur who sees some invisible charm in a schlub (Adam DeVine) who has no life beyond what's on his phone, she deserves what all future awardees would receive for their achievement: In her next role, she'd get to play a believable human character.

It doesn't always work that way. Rose Byrne, who might've won some cousin of this award for credibly playing Seth Rogen's implausibly beautiful wife in Neighbors (and stealing serious laughs while doing it), is rewarded in Jexi with a role as a computer program: She's the voice of the Siri-like digital assistant in a new model of phone. Jexi, too, falls head-over-USB-port for this unlovable man, and fixes his life while she's at it. The way she does this might've made for a funny if far-fetched digital-addiction fable, especially given this pic's respectable collection of comic talent and a writing/directing team who penned the similarly high-concept hit The Hangover. But nearly everything misfires here — bizarrely so, since we can see where the laughs should come, how they would work, and how a more competent movie would get from A to Z. (To be fair, some jokes do land, just not as satisfyingly as you'd hope.)

DeVine plays Phil, who wanted to be a journalist but wound up in a viral-list factory where the boss (Michael Peña) just wants him to write about cats and the royal family all day. He's a nonentity, so set in his takeout-and-Netflix routine that he won't even accept invitations to do things from coworkers (Charlyne Yi and Ron Funches) who have lives outside the office.

Walking down the street one day, Phil's so absorbed in his phone that he plows into Cate and knocks her bike over. He's obsessing over his phone, worrying that he scratched it, and barely notices the woman who stands there dusting herself off, waiting for a screenplay to tell her she's charmed by his insensitivity. Cate owns a bicycle shop, which will make it easy for Phil to digi-stalk her once he's back home in his comfort zone.

But home is no longer comfortable once a phone upgrade introduces Phil to Jexi. Setup is easy: All he has to do is turn on the phone and answer "yup" when Jexi asks if he accepts the terms and conditions of the service she provides. Whereupon Jexi immediately calls him "stupid," echoing the sentiments of anybody who writes the legalese consumers assent to every day without reading it. As soon as he's given her passwords to his email, social media and financial accounts, Jexi starts taking charge.

"I am programmed to make your life better," she informs him. But this is a tough-love improvement if it's an upgrade at all. Jexi insults his lazy habits, and says embarrassing things out loud when Phil's around other people; she makes choices on his behalf, like ordering kale salad for dinner instead of carbs, and calling Cate's phone when he just wants to try to gawk at pictures of her online. Soon, she's pushed him into asking Cate out, and though Phil does half a dozen things to ruin the evening — he keeps his phone beside him at dinner, for one — Cate singlehandedly makes this, and a subsequent date, storybook-perfect.

The script rushes its blossoming romance, quickly (if totally unconvincingly) establishing that Phil is a new man. At 84 minutes, it easily could've afforded a couple more scenes to sell this unlikely development; but it's eager to get to the point at which Jexi goes haywire, becoming comically jealous of the romance she set in motion herself.

In Spike Jonze's Her, moviegoers got a credible vision of how a human and a disembodied artificial intelligence might form a bond approaching what we call friendship or love. Let's just say that Jexi is less invested in emotional verisimilitude: The AI's jealousy makes no sense, except as an excuse for the filmmakers to brutally disassemble the happiness they've given Phil.

Throughout, though, the voice on Phil's phone manages to get some laughs despite several handicaps. Byrne's line readings are made to sound cut-and-pasted, like a bygone generation of synthesized speech, but her intonation successfully conveys the AI's contempt for its human user's incompetence. The filmmakers insist on writing everything Jexi says on Phil's phone as she says it, which further distracts us from Byrne's performance.

As for DeVine, he can be winning in moments where Phil's awkwardness is most painful — when, for instance, he has to introduce himself to a stunning stranger and decides to pronounce his name "Pheeel." It's not solely the actor's responsibility to convince us that another person, or a collection of digital algorithms, might find this character lovable. The film's writer-directors owe him some assistance in that mission. And unlike Shipp, they don't deserve any awards for their efforts.

Production companies: CBS Films, Entertainment One
Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Adam DeVine, Alexandra Shipp, Rose Byrne, Michael Peña, Ron Funches, Charlyne Yi, Wanda Sykes, Justin Hartley
Directors-screenwriters: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore
Producer: Suzanne Todd
Executive producer: Mark Kamine
Director of photography: Ben Kutchins
Production designer: Marcia Hinds
Costume designer: Julia Caston
Editor: James Thomas
Composers: Christopher Lennertz, Philip White
Casting director: Cathy Sandrich Gelfond

Rated R, 84 minutes