Auggie is screening this week at Cinequest in San Jose & Redwood City.
It is too easy and frankly unfair to compare the dry, lifeless, science-fiction romance Auggie with Spike Jonze’s Her, the same concept rendered with tact, beauty, eloquence and poignant resonation. For his directorial debut, actor Matt Kane picked a premise that’s been explored and done so efficiently the first time around that anything that follows in its path is rendered moot by comparison.
Auggie asks the same questions of whether or not it is possible to engage in a boundary-pushing relationship with a computer program and have that unlikely situation be engaging, fulfilling and significant by societally deemed standards but with an almost passive interest in the implications these questions bring to light. In its current form, Kane’s debut is nothing more than a standardized Lifetime infidelity drama with the needless hook of AI glasses and techno masturbation shorts added into the mix.
The wearer of these glasses and shorts is Felix (Richard Kind), an architect (an overused movie job that really sets a tone for the rest of Kane’s script treatment) who receives a pair of Auggie glasses upon his retirement. A relatively new technology in this “near future” we are led to believe, these glasses sync with “your neural network” or something pseudo-scientific like that and create a projection in your field of vision of what your subconscious would most like to see.
As he is acclimating poorly to the sedentary existence of retirement and with his wife (Susan Blackwell) experiencing a sudden career surge that takes up all of her time, Felix gets curious as one does and tries on the glasses…only to be confronted by a beautiful woman 30 years his junior (Christen Harper). The film’s narrative suggests this apparently lucrative and ubiquitous technology has administrative or personal assistant applications, but it seems disproportionately that it is exclusively used for artificial companionship and as masturbatory aid. This begs the very troubling question of why his coworkers would buy him one, knowing full well he is married, because (of course) this leads to his infidelity.
The presentation of this tech screams “this is all we could do with our budget” as Auggie, as she is called, is rendered exclusively in POV shots without any display, technological artifacting or acknowledgment that this is a hologram-like abstraction. When Felix puts on what look like standard prescription spectacles, we do hear an appreciated dubbed “activation” sound effect, but other than that the film really fails to sell us on this technology or make us believe the scenes are not just two-shot setups of Kind and Harper talking to one another.
This surface-level approach to its central technology is also present in the script’s treatment of his mounting infidelity, which is strangely played without dialogue or acknowledgement of its likelihood. Outside of one curt argument with his wife and a series of longing looks from a giggling Harper, there is nothing included in the plot to make you believe he is falling in love with his A.I. or why he would risk his homelife to pursue a relationship with it. It just kind of happens because the script dictates it so, and it feels every bit forced and awkward.
Speaking of, I don’t know what it says about your film when the most significant plot point is whether or not your main character will order massaging masturbation shorts so he can sleep with his artificial companion, but it is probably not good. While I would never ask for the image of a writhing Richard Kind in what looks like thermal running shorts intercut with Harper in seductive closeups, director Matt Kane sure is not afraid of filling out the back half of his barely feature-length film with it.
It’s indicative of his plain, drab-looking presentation throughout that the most engaging image he can muster is also its most unintentionally hilarious. As we are so disconnected from this character and his alleged struggle to keep his marriage together in light of his devoted A.I., these scenes that represent his giving into temptation feel so hollow and awkward, especially so when you consider how pseudo-serious Kane plays it.
Auggie is an endeavor that should have been reconsidered from the outset. Not only is the money not there to make us believe the technology, but the central idea has also been explored with an adroitness that this script and execution could only hope to approach. Not to harp on the comparison, but at least Her had the sense to not have masturbation shorts.