By Ella Taylor in the July-August 2017 Issue
In Marjorie Prime Jon Hamm plays a hologram, which may seem like odd casting of an actor with such fleshly presence. Still, when not buffed to the gills and poured into a Mad Men power suit, Hamm looks scaled down to affably human; even the granite jaw aims to please. The Prime’s agreeable nature will become relevant, if only because the movie, adapted by director Michael Almereyda from Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer-nominated stage play, is in part an inquiry into the evolving connection between us humans and the technology we’ve created. Hamm represents a mostly obedient piece of software named Walter, who’s been programmed to boost the flagging memory of Marjorie (the incomparable Lois Smith, reprising her stage role), an elderly widow in need of comfort as she struggles through early dementia. Walter is such a good replica of Marjorie’s husband in his youth that we wouldn’t know he’s transparent were it not for a puckish moment when someone walks through his foot.
Blink and you might miss this and other lo-fi special effects. Always inventive with form and ideas, Almereyda is rarely experimental just for the hell of it: his 2000 Hamlet had the Great Dane deliver “To be or not to be” under a “Go Home Happy” sign at a Blockbuster Video store—and in context it was no cliché. The minimal CGI in Marjorie Prime subtly abets the philosophical dressing on a moving, if psychologically familiar, family drama with a tech twist. The flashbacks that fill us in on Marjorie’s painfully checkered family history are deployed with a light touch. Almereyda opens up the play’s one-room set into a beachside house sleekly furnished in the beige and brown and stained wood you’d expect from well-heeled Hamptons WASPs.
Skeletons march out of cupboards on cue, but this isn’t Edward Albee territory: these are posh people who conduct their fights in a genteel whisper. The backstory to their current sufferings is sensitively rendered, if standard fare. We hear of inattentive parenting, sibling rivalry, depression, and a tragic death with a long reach into the present and future. Scripted for resentment and eternal hunger for affection, Marjorie’s daughter Tess (a finely tuned Geena Davis) sees rivals everywhere, is estranged from her own daughter, and resents the Prime who’s standing in for her withholding father. Her solicitous husband Jon (Tim Robbins) positions himself as the family mediator, yet seems to enjoy himself a touch too much topping up the Prime he created with new data to enhance—and possibly edit—Marjorie’s memory bank.
This may seem like glum material, but Marjorie Prime is refreshingly free of the rote doom and gloom that clings to many movies addressing the Great Tech Takeover. Jon is no more sinister than the quiescent Walter, he of the oft-repeated recorded response to new information, “I’ll remember that now.” Yet this house is stacked with unreliable narrators (though Walter and Marjorie both display a subversive kick), all of them floundering in a slippery time frame that is skillfully rendered by Almereyda as fluid and without boundaries.
Does it matter that all memory is by neuro-scientific definition faulty or interpretive? How will the increasingly fuzzy line between human and digital memory change the way we relate to one another and live on in others’ memories? Whether someday soon we will all need (or get regardless) our own Primes is just one of the questions this likable but slightly anodyne movie raises yet doesn’t really run with. That may be a weakness in the play, and Almereyda, expertly juggling the tonal shifts between mordant and elegiac, keeps the faith. Those who admire the work of this bold innovator may be disappointed that he has muffled his own voice in the process.
Ella Taylor writes about film for NPR.org, The Criterion Collection, and others. She teaches in the School of Cinema at the University of Southern California.