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Marjorie Prime

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/21/17 02:12:02

"What seems like a poor simulation becomes worth close examnation."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"Marjorie Prime" doesn't seem like much to start (and seems misnamed to boot), a strange case featuring a director whose previous film seemed much more ambitious and a cast where many had been a big deal not so long ago only able to scrape together enough to do something that looks amateurish and flat. It never really escapes the shackles of its stage-bound roots - it even feels like the lights go down between acts - but by the end, that's something an audience may be willing to talk itself into as a positive, that a lack of filmic flourish allows the ideas to stand on their own.

Certainly, you can see where that's the plan, as the very opening scene gives a hint of how malleable memory can be, as Marjorie (Lois Smith), an 85-year-old woman whose mind is decaying, converses with a hologram whose AI is modeled on her dead husband Walter (Jon Hamm), and a dull conversation about going to see My Best Friends Wedding becomes an example of how the truth as people know it changes by accident and design. The film delves into this, talking about human and machine memory, subtly showing the AI being upgraded but never becoming perfect, performing a couple of hard twists as it finds other iterations of the premise articulated in that first scene. Writer/director Michael Almereyda, adapting a play by Jordan Harrison, doesn't try to sneak this in; he has his characters interrogate this new technology directly and among themselves, showing its flaws but also, in parallel, showing those of the human mind, very particularly these characters.

Marjorie is not along with Walter Prime, after all; daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and her husband Jon (Tim Robbins) have moved in with her, as has caregiver Julie (Stephanie Andujar), now that Marjorie needs twenty-four hour care. The film seldom expands beyond that circle - Marjorie's granddaughter is pointedly never shown - it doesn't necessarily have to; that core cast is pretty sharp. Jon Hamm gets the short end of the stick somewhat, only seen as the original Walter in one scene, and mostly spends the movie relatively flat and affectless; it's a capable portrayal of a computer program designed to project patience, but deliberately unvaried. Lois Smith also gets a more narrow than expected range of material as Marjorie, in that the audience never sees her swerve from good days to bad as her mind deteriorates, but rather the horror of knowing she is losing herself. It's careful, unglamorous work, though she does have some later scenes that make interesting contrasts to what both she and Hamm were doing before.

Less heralded is the work Geena Davis and Tim Robbins do, but they have larger parts as the film goes on and they, too, make an intriguing contrast. Robbins gets to wear his heart on his sleeve as Jon maybe drinks too much and seems volatile, but there's genuine warmth and vulnerability to the character that goes from initially seeming performative to being terribly earnest by the end, especially compared to the AIs, but also when contrasted with Davis as Tess. There's a hidden fragility to her that initially seems like it needs to be inferred from what she and others describe second-hand, but it's baked into Davis's performance so well that it's an eye-opener when that messiness and self-doubt is taken away.

The backstory is made clear as the film goes on, just enough to make it interesting without distracting from the bigger concepts. There are clear act breaks that in some ways reset the story when they occur, and the multiple iterations without clear progress could make it a drag, but in this case it pushes the audience to ponder rather than guiding them in a particular direction. It leads to a pair of final scenes that are mesmerizing in contrast, one thoroughly human and sad but emotionally loaded, the other featuring AI and, though it revisits references and themes from throughout the film, it is utterly alien and seeming to push in opposite directions, at least from human perspective.

It's got a bunch of interesting things going on at once, though, from explorations on how software leans and spreads knowledge differently from human minds to how, after we die, the reflections we've left online will come to define us. And for all that the film often seems plain, often the cinematic equivalent of a play where the stage dressing is kept relatively constant, the director finds a couple neat things to do with it, like using who opens a scene sitting in which chair to indicate something important, or a flashback to a museum where the murals in the background initially seem unusually static scenery, an effect echoed by shots of a tumultuous sea and a cloudy but unmoving sky. It's not the obvious tricks he used to show time passing or explain odd concepts in Experimenter, but a more controlled use on the same methods.

"Marjorie Prime" is an odd one, probably more at home on television or a small screening room than a large theater because it doesn't seem traditionally cinematic. It's interesting, though, constantly digging deeper into its characters and concepts without the obvious moments when one's mind is blown, making it wind up much more interesting than it may initially seem.

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