Film Review: ‘Jexi’

Owen Gleiberman

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A dweeb strikes up a relationship with his female-voiced virtual assistant. Most moviegoers would recognize that as the plot of Spike Jonze’s “Her” — and most would probably say, as well, that Jonze’s cautionary A.I. romantic fantasy, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the depressed loner who comes under the seductive spell of his Siri muse, is the definitive treatment of that subject. But I was my own kind of loner on “Her.” I found the movie to be one-note and monotonous.

It stars Adam DeVine, with his motormouth cuddliness, as Phil, a millennial office-space worker who churns out viral lists of clickbait for a San Francisco-based website. Phil is addicted to his phone, to social media — to anything that puts an invisible filter between himself and the human race. When his precious phone gets smashed (an event as trauma-inducing to him as if he’d lost his parents), he replaces it with a shiny new one, which includes a virtual-assistant program named Jexi. And she’s got a lot on her virtual mind.

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Unlike the soothing, alluring Scarlett Johansson voice of “Her,” Jexi speaks — in the voice of Rose Byrne — in that neutrally prerecorded, emphasis-on-the-wrong-syllable vintage robot Siri monotone. But what she says and does is anything but neutral. She kicks things off by announcing, “We’re going to have so much fun together, you f—king nerd,” and then commandeers Phil’s credit-card accounts and insults him to the point of abuse when he fails to follow her good advice. She orders kale salad instead of pork noodles for takeout, sends an office e-mail demanding that Phil get a promotion, and cold calls the comely bike-shop owner (Alexandra Shipp) he has a crush on. She also raps along with X-rated hip-hop lyrics and says things like “Your nipples are too close together,” “This PowerPoint demonstration sucks. Your boss is a f—king moron,” and “Inside my hard glass shell, I have a full lady boner right now.” And even as she comes on like a life coach with the vocabulary of a drill sergeant, she’s not just taking over Phil’s life. She’s falling in love with him.

I don’t want to say that I think “Jexi” is a better movie than “Her.” Spike Jonze’s film was heady and ambitious. “Jexi,” written and directed by the team of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (“Bad Moms”), is like a 21st-century “Knight Rider” crossed with “I Dream of Jeannie.” It’s a trifle, a hit-or-miss parody of our technoid lives that’s knowing and brash in an over-the-top daffy way. Yet Lucas and Moore write some whiplash funny lines, and since the film is just a throwaway, you can enjoy it on a trivial synthetic revenge-of-the-nerd level. You’ll probably like “Jexi” if you can be amused by a joke about phone sex that goes like this: Jexi tells Phil to “plug me in,” then to “unplug me,” then “plug me,” and then he starts doing it faster and faster…

Long ago, in the age of Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate” and Woody Allen in “Annie Hall,” right up through the farcical social misfits of the 1980s (Anthony Michael Hall in “Sixteen Candles,” etc.), Hollywood’s freaks and geeks had an undertone of self-hatred. They were scared to be themselves because they didn’t entirely like who they were. But Adam DeVine plays nerds who have no inner demons. It’s as if George Costanza had a son who’d inherited his father’s chatterbox deviousness without a trace of his anxiety. In “Jexi,” DeVine’s Phil rarely asserts himself, and when he does he inevitably says the embarrassingly wrong thing. Yet he’s a happy loser. DeVine’s trump card is that he’s a dork with a complete lack of shame, and that allows him to play scenes like the hilarious one in which he fumblingly attempts to snap some dick pics, over the appalled protests of his digital dictator.

Lucas and Moore turn Phil’s love of “Days of Thunder” into a good running gag, they write witty nasty small roles for Wanda Sykes (as a had-it-up-to-here phone-boutique clerk) and Michael Peña (as Phil’s anything-for-a-click website boss), and they pad the movie out with office kickball montages and a scene in which Phil and Cate smoke dope backstage with Kid Cudi (playing himself). From the moment Phil smashes into Cate on the street, it’s clear that she’s out of his league, and that the romance that follows — in which she continues to stare at him all moony-eyed, no matter how badly he disgraces himself — is the thinnest of movie concoctions. Yet you go with it, because that’s the formula “Jexi” is built around, and because Alexandra Shipp, who floods the screen with her affectionate dazzle, knows how to underplay the beauty-and-the-beastliness of it all. Not that Adam DeVine is a beast; he’s a fast, appealing actor. He has yet to graduate from playing man-boy cartoons, but in “Jexi” he holds his own (something that Jexi would probably say a lot more crudely).

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