One of the best developments of the 2010s, in the eyes of this cinephile, has been the ascendancy of Rose Byrne to the status of one of the most reliable comic actors working right now. Obviously, she's been in some bad things, and sometimes she has been not very interesting in relatively straight dramatic roles, but when she's asked to be funny, she absolutely nails it, every single time. And now we come to yet another brick in the "Oh Rose, what can't you do?" wall: as the disembodied, fake-synthetic voice of a smart phone digital assistant in Jexi, Byrne has demonstrated that she's able to temporarily trick me into thinking I don't hate the worst romantic comedy of 2019, using nothing but shrill, deadpan line deliveries.

Other than being Byrne's only wide-release film of 2019 (and one of only two films, period; in the Netflix original I Am Mother, she also plays the voice of an AI), Jexi's most noteworthy claim to fame is that it will be the last theatrical release for CBS Films, which will henceforth turn to exclusively producing content for the CBS All Access streaming platform. And I will say this: Jexi feels an awful lot like a direct-to-streaming romantic comedy. It is painfully phony, of course, that was obvious from a mile off, but it's even a kind of insincere phoniness, not the good organic kind that comes from flop-sweaty studio executives failing to come up with a decent approximation of human behavior. It feels, well, algorithmic, assembled from Things Millennials Like in the most chilly, thoughtless way. Thus do we get a film in which an employer at Fake Buzzfeed falls in love with the sole proprietor of an artisanal bike repair shop, except that his Evil Siri app tries to sabotage their burgeoning relationship. Officially speaking, this is a work whose directors, Jon Lucas & Scott Moore, are also its screenwriters; but are you going to tell me a writer came up with that shit? Even the writers of some extremely visibly terrible comedies over the last ten-odd years, such as Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Bad Moms and Office Christmas Party (I could probably save the work of writing not just this paragraph, but this whole review, if I simply said "from the writer-directors of Bad Moms and A Bad Moms Christmas")?  This is soulless, profoundly soulless, and it only gets more soulless as we start to fill in the details.

The first of those details is that Phil, our sad-sack wannabe journalist, reduced to cranking out listicles by the dozen, and addicted to his smart phone, is played by Adam DeVine. Now, I do not know the first thing about Adam DeVine as a human, and maybe he's a dazzling raconteur and all of his friends and loved ones consider him to be the most positive single presence in their life. But I do know that if I'm a movie producer, and I want to make a romantic comedy that everybody falls in love with and has great commercial prospects and will live on as a classic of the genre, he's not my first choice. He's probably not even my tenth choice. His biggest movie roles have been as the antagonistic weirdo that Rebel Wilson hate-fucks in the Pitch Perfect movies; he's just not somebody whose screen presence is charming and root-for-able.

Anyway, Phil buys a brand new phone with a brand new assistant, Jexi, and that's where the fun starts. This particular installation of Jexi was corrupted somewhere down the line, and it has over-interpreted its mission to make Phil's life better by deciding to make all of his life better: pushing him towards social activities, forcing him to make small talk with the aforementioned bike shop owner, Cate (Alexandra Shipp), refusing to allow him to order delivery food that isn't healthy, and so on. Alas, the corruption goes deeper than that, and Jexi decides that what Phil really needs is the kind of stable female presence than only it can provide, and so in its jangled AI way, it decides to be in love with Phil, and to prepare to destroy his life if he doesn't love it back. Since his very first action after booting Jexi up was to give it full control of his finances and personal documents, this will be a simple matter for it.

The two obvious touchstones here are Black Mirror and Her, as Jexi palpably longs to be a metaphor for how we let our phones and other devices dictate our loves too much; the joke that Phil loves his phone more than any human is supposed to be in there too, only there's never a hint that Phil reacts to Jexi's advances with anything other than confusion and/or horror. Anyway, we can allow the film to have its metaphor without claiming that it has done anything even a little bit interesting with that metaphor; what the film really wants to be is a straightforward romantic comedy between Phil and Cate, with Jexi serving as the arbitrary complication that keeps them apart long enough to kick into a third act. This is a problem for any number of reasons, the biggest one being that Jexi is the only part of the film that's funny or enjoyable; Byrne's slightly hostile spin on the nasal, neutral recitation of a virtual assistant is always strong, and particularly so once Jexi begins to start spewing vulgarity and explicit sexual demands. As I said, it's enough to make it seem, briefly, that Jexi is enjoyable.

Very briefly, you understand. The film mostly spends its time doing all of the tedious, schlocky things that romcoms do, only it does them with a laborious "extremely online" twist. There's not a single gag drawn from Fake Buzzfeed (it has an actual name, but fuck me if I'm going to devote the seconds to trying to remember what it was) that works at all; Michael Peña's deliberately embarrassing performance as Phil's mercurial boss at least benefits from the actor's fearless commitment to the bit, though I don't think he does anything that he didn't already do better in his other deliberately embarrassing 2019 performance, in Dora and the Lost City of Gold. Meanwhile, there are punchlines that feel what people with unbridled contempt for millennials think that millennials would find funny, including a reference to Bernie Sanders so bizarre that my audience (mostly comprised of said millennials) was openly confused by it. And when it moves into more generic romantic comedy territory, it shifts from awful and pandering to merely boring and trite. The film does way too much of its storytelling through musical montages, of which there are a truly offensive number littered throughout the film's unhurried 84 minutes; it brings in dull friends to provide bland comic relief. On top of all of this, I never once believed in Phil and Cate as a couple; not only does he do a terrible job of acting like anything but an idiotic stalker, it really doesn't seem like they have enough in common to be interested in each other for more than about five minutes anyway (solving for this is part of where those musical montages come in). So all in all, genre boilerplate done poorly, with only a weird sci-fi twist to give it personality; and that sci-fi twist is so thoughtless and half-baked that it almost manages to make the thing worse, notwithstanding Byrne's ace performance.