by Ken Bakely
In writing, the overuse of passive voice pushes the reader away, because your text becomes about something, rather than that thing. Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime, based on Jordan Harrison’s play, suffers from a cinematic version of that. A common pratfall of these stage-to-film adaptations, the reconciliation between showing and telling is never reached. The space for sweeping moments, and landscapes of sounds and images, gets dashed out. It’s replaced by locked-down locales and lengthy monologues. When in the presence of performers, they have life, but through a screen, they join the past tense.
You see gifted actors delivering meaningful words, but the moments of immediacy, of freedom, of movement, are missing. The spark is there, though. It’s there in the eyes of Marjorie (Lois Smith), an octogenarian widow living in the Not Too Distant Future, sometime in the 2050s. She’s suffering from the early stages of dementia, and an effort to preserve her wits for a while longer, and keep her company on long, lonely days, her family has installed an advanced, AI hologram. You feed it facts about a deceased loved one in the stage of life they’re most associated with (their “prime” form), and their likeness can interact and speak with the person in question.
For Marjorie, there’s no question that it has to be Walter (Jon Hamm), her husband. They have nice chats, as the computer learns more about the person it’s based on, and Marjorie enjoys the process. There is a moment when the two discuss how Walter proposed to her; it was right after they saw My Best Friend’s Wedding, and were walking home from the theater. Marjorie asks if they could change it, and make it an old movie house playing Casablanca. Change history? Walter Prime asks, stunned. But why not? It’s a harmless fabrication, one that adds the warmth of classic, timeless romance.
Marjorie Prime seeks to delve into that idea of our memories. We take them for granted, and even though they fade and reshape themselves (or we reshape them), we consider them the only real documents of our past. Someone else might have concrete evidence about a previous event, but it contradicts our recollection. “No, no,” we will insist. “That’s not how I remember it happening.” And so, we argue that this other argument is incorrect. For Marjorie, as her memory slides into decline, her daughter, Tess (Geena Davis), and son-in-law, John (Tim Robbins), are pleased to see her happy, but unsettled by the implications of this technology. Over the course of the film, suffice it to say that they learn to adapt.
Indeed, the world of Marjorie Prime moves in between the natural and the created with little transition. Almerayda’s most effective moments as a director come from cluing us into when we are seeing a “real” conversation, or a constructed memory, or a moment with a Prime. The dialogue begins with normality, but soon it is clear one of the participants is leading the way. His ability to charge these moments with an underlying energy, is of an incalculable benefit. But at the same time, it magnifies the general problem with the movie’s execution. Such strength in the small and fluid makes us wonder why the movie is so built upon the large and rigid. This is a story about people, and the flexibility with which they revise their approach to the past. The implications may be grand, but the scope must be limited. It has to be this way for us to understand them.
We want to examine Marjorie’s ever-changing emotions, in how she feels around Walter Prime, around her family, and her day-to-day interactions. Smith is wonderful in the role, applying a great deal of care in bringing out those ideas to us. But the script is unconvinced that such meditations are necessary. It would much rather show off how the rest of the film is coming from a mile away. It takes itself at face value.
When a Prime talks to its assigned human, and learns some new tic of its personality, it stores it away, makes a brief remark saying so, and keeps going. But it can’t remember like a person does, it can only modify its programmed behavior. Marjorie Prime has a few too many moments when it feels like that. Although it’s a movie of merit, from the talents of its actors to the philosophical questions it raises about its central object, it feels like data. There might be people living in its world, yet it collects information indifferently, setting up its environment before the musing has had a chance to start.