Jon Hamm plays a digitally simulated version of Lois Smith’s husband in Michael Almereyda’s futuristic meditation on death and the mysteries of memory, also starring Geena Davis and Tim Robbins.
“The future will be here soon enough, you might as well be friendly with it,” says the title character played by the magnificent Lois Smith in Marjorie Prime. That advice represents a philosophical departure from the usual dire screen depictions of the role technology will play in our lives moving forward. It gives Michael Almereyda’s exquisitely acted chamber drama a visionary quality, with its depiction of a near-future in which pixel-generated avatars can provide human comfort. Naturally, that exchange also comes with risks, being subject to our own propensity for trying to tidy up the past, shaving off the messy edges of imperfect lives.
Based on Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer-shortlisted 2014 play, this is the rare recent stage-to-screen adaptation that actually improves on the source. For one thing, its intimate exploration of lives in the present, past and future makes immeasurable gains from being witnessed in close-up. But Almereyda’s smart script also has rendered the material more dramatically satisfying, locating a poignant emotional undercurrent that remained muted onstage.
That in itself is unexpected coming from a director whose films have at times been somewhat chilly and cerebral. But even at its most sorrowful, Marjorie Prime is suffused with warmth, the core of it emanating from Smith in two complementary iterations of the same character.
Not since Spike Jonze’s Her has humanity’s uneasy embrace of seductive technology been given such soulful contemplation. And while this is a much smaller-scale, more somber movie, its provocative premise and nuanced observations on aging, loss and mortality, not to mention the production’s arresting formal elegance, should attract discerning audiences. The added value of Jon Hamm in his best role since Don Draper won’t hurt either.
Smith’s Marjorie, with her lustrous silver mane and twinkling eyes, is an 85-year-old widow who conveys both nervous confusion and a girlish coquettishness when we first meet her. “I feel like I have to perform around you,” she tells Walter (Hamm), the newly acquired artificial intelligence version of her late husband, whom she has chosen to re-create in his forties.
Walter is a “Prime,” a simulated companion with the density of a high-grade hologram, infinite bandwidth and a capacity for empathy, albeit expressed with a cool robotic edge. Serene, attentive and unfailingly pleasant, his only limitation is that he relies on personal information provided by Marjorie and her family to develop a fuller understanding of their history together. “I’ll remember that now,” Walter says as he processes each new detail from the past, a sense of gratitude and a hunger to be “more human” seemingly programmed into him.
The world that Almereyda and production designer Javiera Varas create here is much like our own, only sleeker, cleaner, more orderly. Marjorie lives with her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins) in a modern house on the beach that is a model of spatial harmony and unostentatious comfort. But this beckoning future has not solved the issue of human frailty, which is where Primes come in, designed to ease the loneliness of those who have lost loved ones, and to keep fading minds active by prodding them to remember.
The film’s blurred opening shot is of the ocean glittering under a hazy sun, an image evocative of memory and the beginning of a water motif that continues throughout in the swimming pool or the coastal rain that lashes the house. But memory is unreliable. Jon and Tess discuss the theory that the human brain is surrounded by sedimentary layers, causing us to recall the last time we remembered something rather than the original incident. The memory gets fuzzier with each recollection, subject to adjustments, distortions and omissions.
All that inevitably is part of the process with Walter, and Almereyda dramatizes this gradual remolding of the past with both playfulness and poetry. Marjorie is like a child at story time when Walter recounts episodes she has previously shared with him. For instance, when he reminds her how much they enjoyed the Julia Roberts movie My Best Friend’s Wedding, providing a droll recap of the plot. “What if we went to see Casablanca instead?” suggests Marjorie, savvy enough even in her dotage to realize that memories can be finessed.
Tess, a prickly type whose difficult relationship with her mother is mirrored in tension with her own unseen daughter, is skeptical of the benefits of the Prime, and a little jealous of Marjorie’s fondness for him. But Jon participates with great care in Walter’s “education,” embellishing details of his mother-in-law’s romance with a tennis player before her marriage, and even filling in gaps about a family tragedy during a drunken chat. That sheds new light for Walter on Marjorie’s recollection of a long-ago trip to New York with her husband, during which she was enchanted by the billowing saffron banners of Christo’s “The Gates” in Central Park.
Such moments are quietly affecting. There’s tenderness also in Walter’s gentle reassurance that while Marjorie’s accomplishments as a violinist are no longer within the capabilities of her arthritic hands, the sense memory remains.
But he elicits pain and sadness as well, and one of Almereyda’s most resonant themes is the question of whether to respect the integrity of the past or soften it for easier consumption, mending relationships that were left unresolved in real life — even if that cleanup work is left to computerized clones of ourselves. The healing notion of a perfect rendering of history is eloquently conveyed in an art installation viewed by Tess and Jon, depicting a 360-degree Versailles panorama, pristine and untarnished by time.
Where Harrison’s play was somewhat abrupt in moving the family’s evolution forward with the addition of new Primes, Almereyda expands on that aspect quite beautifully in the quietly moving second half. This would appear to be a film that will prompt wildly divergent emotional responses — what some will find melancholy or unsettling, to others will be strangely restorative.
Shot on Long Island by cinematographer Sean Williams in a subdued color palette, the film is graceful, composed and leisurely in its visual movements, which are matched by Kathryn J. Schubert’s fluid editing. The action is largely confined to the house but given enhanced scope by the constant presence of ocean and sky. Following her distinctive work on Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, British composer Mica Levi again shows her skill at shaping complex moods, punctuating the scenes with intense bursts of string underscoring that become more mellifluous in the concluding section, also incorporating “Wave Movements” by Richard Reed Parry and Bryce Dessner.
The performances are impeccable. Davis keeps a careful lid on Tess’ anxiety and resentment, the character’s troubled history undergoing its own reordering in later scenes. Robbins’ loving, patient Jon orbits around her as someone long accustomed to navigating his wife’s sharp edges. Hamm is superb, his handsomeness offset by straight-backed stiffness and a penetrating gaze that somehow suggests compassion and connection, making him in effect a sentient gadget with a subtle sense of humor.
The heart of the film, however, is Smith, reprising the role she played on stage in both Los Angeles and New York. Her intricately layered characterization — full of earthy intelligence, sly humor and sad yearning; “sharp as a tack” some days and peering through fog on others — gives wrenching human form to the conflict between remembering and forgetting.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Cast: Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Lois Smith, Tim Robbins, Stephanie Andujar, Hannah Gross, Hana May Colley
Production company: Passage Pictures
Director-screenwriter: Michael Almereyda, based on the play by Jordan Harrison
Producers: Michael Almereyda, Uri Singer
Executive producers: Rogerio Ferezin, Luis Fragali, Jon Hamm, Adam Mirels, Tim Robbins, Isen Robbins, Aimee Schoof
Director of photography: Sean Williams
Production designer: Javiera Varas
Costume designer: Kama K. Royz
Music: Mica Levi
Editor: Kathryn J. Schubert
Casting: Billy Hopkins
Sales: Cinetic Media