‘Jexi’: Artificial intelligence, meet artificial cinema

Sunday, October 20, 2019 - 5:58pm

NOSELL

Lionsgate

“Jexi” is a what-if movie, that sad brand of stale comedy that’s framed by a conceptually intriguing idea — like “Isn’t It Romantic,” which asked what-if-someone-was-stuck-in-a-romantic-comedy? With major studio comedies frequently tanking at the box office, this type of writing has become increasingly popular as producers search for a unique idea to get people into theater seats. This time, unfortunately, that didn’t work. In its opening weekend, “Jexi” grossed a meager 3.2 million dollars. For the benefit of those who didn’t see it (meaning most of the world) the film’s what-if question is what-if-a-cell-phone-fell-in-love?

Phil, played by Adam Devine (“Isn’t It Romantic”), works an unsatisfying job at a Buzzfeed-style website making listicles about cats while pining for something more. When he buys a new phone, its unusually vivacious artificial intelligence software, Jexi, sets out to improve his life, and falls head over heels for him in the process. Of course, these feelings aren’t quite reciprocated, as Phil has fallen in love with Cate (Alexandra Shipp, “Love Simon”) and starts to use his phone less.

Devine and the cast, especially Wanda Sykes (“Bad Moms”), are funny enough to carry mediocre scenes that have been done before in countless other comedies. The science fiction elements, centered around a sentient, emotional AI, are interesting at a base level, asking common but still pressing questions about artificial life and the future of human connection. Jexi herself is also hilarious, delivering expletive-filled rants with the dryness of a taciturn artificial personality like Siri. The movie is a strange combination of science fiction with a social point a la “Black Mirror” and a Lifetime network romantic comedy.

The two genres in “Jexi” mix like oil and water. The science fiction is kept wall away from the love story, shoved into a subplot. The film employs elements from two distinct genres with widely different rules and conventions, without considering how they would appear in juxtaposition. Since a balance is never achieved, they manage to diminish the effects of each other. The romance comes off as frivolous and unrealistic, while the sci-fi appears impersonal, just a gimmick in service of the plot.

On top of the blithe romance and its science fiction sojurns, “Jexi” clumsily tries to say something about society. It’s a basic message: Technology dependence bad, personal connection good. The opening scene is a montage of Phil diving into a cell phone to escape his parents’ troubled marriage. Then there’s Adam painstakingly working to create the “perfect” Facebook picture, slathering it in filters and emojis. Finally, and most ham-fistedly — a phone literally tries to stop Phil from having a human relationship. 

This idea would work if “Jexi” had any real humanity, yet everything about it invokes the superficiality of the internet age. The cinematography chokes in colors straight out of Snapchat’s most garish filters, and the music used wouldn’t be out of place in an Apple commercial. The characters are like Instagram personalities, too. They fit their assigned roles perfectly, without any blemishes, and there is never any real depth. Kid Cudi’s awkward cameo furthers the unreality.

“Jexi” dispenses surface pleasures perfectly, conjuring brief laughs or mild interest, but in the end, nothing sticks. Its many disparate parts are too underdeveloped and contradictory to work. Satires about similar topics, like the episode “Nosedive” from “Black Mirror,” work because the comedy and science fiction are intertwined, combining to say something meaningful about the human experience. In “Jexi,” they’re too chopped up, which keeps it from saying anything at all.

“Jexi” will be buried in the streaming sludge among other forgotten movies, joining the ever-growing pile of colorful, smiling thumbnails that don’t do much but look pretty. This seems like the most appropriate fate.