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Sundance Film Review: ‘Marjorie Prime’

Variety logo Variety 1/24/2017 Guy Lodge
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Does every good play benefit from becoming a movie? In the sense that it brings a broader audience to a hitherto limited-access entertainment, of course. But the camera can have a diminishing effect on some highly expansive stage works — and so it proves in “Marjorie Prime,” a sporadically fascinating but airless adaptation of Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer-shortlisted study of family, memory, and the artificial intelligence that binds them.  Though it mostly resists contrived “opening-out” devices, and preserves the decidedly low-tech visualization of the play’s sci-fi premise, Michael Almereyda’s well-cast film never finds a suitably complex cinematic language for its tangle of intellectual and emotional ideas, settling in instead as a neutrally carpeted showcase for its stars. Fine as they are, and as heartening as it is to see Geena Davis in a rare lead role, it’s hard not to feel a headier opportunity has been missed.

If, while watching “Marjorie Prime,” you wonder if the composer was given a slightly different film to score, everything fits into place when Mica Levi’s name pops up in the closing credits. The British prodigy’s stark, nervy strings were essential to the cultivated atmospherics of “Under the Skin” and “Jackie”; here, they float dazzlingly on the surface, fully in sympathy with the darkest, saddest subtextual impulses of the material, but not quite supporting Almereyda’s more anodyne aspects thereof. Instead, production designer Javiera Varas’ fifty-shades-of-peach treatment of the film’s single location — a beach house on a narratively indeterminate stretch of American shoreline, shot on Long Island — sets the softer tone for a nonetheless claustrophobic chamber piece.

That said, the film’s bland furnishing may be thematically pointed in a drama that frequently hinges on mollifying the truth, beginning with dementia-riddled Marjorie (Lois Smith, touchingly reprising her role in the original stage production) being fed a selective version of her life history by her well-meaning daughter Tess (Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins). They do so via the peculiar technological innovation of a Prime — a simulated, personalized digital projection of a fully sentient human being, here fashioned as a younger version of Marjorie’s late husband Walter (a typically dashing Jon Hamm, giving holograms everywhere a good name). Programmed to stimulate her memory through nostalgia-steeped conversation, fed memories and anecdotes that she herself has forgotten (or, perhaps, never knew), Walter Prime becomes a valuable conduit to an increasingly detached Marjorie, who approaches their sessions together as an eager child would a storytelling hour.

Tess, however, has qualms about allowing her mother to bond with an intangible robot, particularly one that seems to be supplanting her in Marjorie’s attentions and affections. As in Spike Jonze’s “Her,” the tension between real human emotion and manufactured emotional responsiveness comes in for even-handed debate: If Walter Prime is giving Marjorie the feelings of comfort and companionship she needs, does it matter that he (or perhaps that should be “it”) cannot feel? Harrison’s play further muddies the waters as Marjorie’s loved ones use the technology to actively manipulate her failing memory, erasing trauma and embellishing happiness — though Marjorie slyly catches onto these possibilities herself. In the film’s wittiest passage, played with bone-dry irony by Hamm, Walter Prime recounts a past date to see “My Best Friend’s Wedding” (“It was Julia Roberts… for a while, it was always Julia Roberts”), only for Marjorie to customize it into a more romantically old-school evening at “Casablanca.”

The characters lucidly and extensively parse these tricky moral questions, but Almereyda and d.p. Sean Williams supply only a few vivid images to animate and substantiate them in the film’s near-future story world. Alternating between interior under-lighting and over-lighting for ambiguous effect, the film occasionally makes a run for the clear blue sky and sea that lie just outside the house’s muffling walls, as if reflecting Marjorie’s own irregular flashes of clarity. But many of the setups and compositions here have the purely pragmatic simplicity of filmed theater. Editor Kathryn J. Schubert also avoids flourishes that might complicate or recontextualize the material, with proceedings maintaining an even, soothing tempo even as the narrative — slightly reworked by Almereyda in the latter stretches — complicatedly leaps into the future, with future Primes joining (or adjoining) the family tree.

The actors, for their part, offer performances worthy of such a generously stripped-down platform. Davis, in particular, is stoically heartbreaking as a woman who feels increasingly alone in processing and preserving the least pleasant chapters of her past, as well as her mother’s, while Smith captures dementia’s rapidly alternating moods of panic, placidity, and fleeting, absolute presence with a wry precision that should resonate with viewers who have had to live beside it. Hamm, meanwhile, is most beguiling in a difficult role that balances cold automaton authority with a quasi-human awareness of his deficiencies as a being, in addition to stray, mirthful echoes of the man he’s been programmed to evoke. One leaves “Marjorie Prime” pleased to have witnessed these actors at work, and rather wishing you’d got to see them tackle this intimate piece in a warmer, flesh-and-blood theatrical context. As with Walter Prime, however, their projections will suffice.

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