“The future will be here soon enough. Might as well get friendly with it.” This thought, tossed off by the incomparable Lois Smith in “Marjorie Prime,” captures the exquisite drama’s theme, on many levels.
Can we ever get friendly with the future? Doesn’t its very un-knowability preclude that? The notion can also be interpreted through a science-fiction lens: the film takes place in the not-too-distant future, incorporating artificially intelligent characters that are digitally simulated holograms of dead people.
But the idea packs a more ruminative punch. Time passes; people cope with life in the ways they can. We can try to “get friendly” with the inevitable, but we can’t escape pain, suffering and grief. We struggle to find ways to make our peace with it.
“Marjorie Prime” is about the passage of time, about what we hold on to and remember along the way, how we deal with loss, and whether we can find solace in our memories. It explores complicated family relationships. It delves into the question of whether humans are predictable, or just the opposite. Most of all, and quite simply, the film is about love. Employing a futuristic conceit that could be dubbed soulful sci-fi, this exquisitely rendered story explores and examines human emotion.
Based on the play by Jordan Harrison, and adapted for the screen by writer-director Michael Almereyda (“Experimenter,” “Escapes”), the dialogue achieves the tricky balance of being both artfully profound and unostentatious. Often in theatrical adaptations, a film retains too much of its origins, coming across as stagy or too confined. That is not at all the case here.
“How nice that we could love somebody,” is another seemingly bland thought expressed by Smith’s octogenarian character Marjorie. But like so much in this layered, poignant and provocative film, those words have a deeper meaning.
We meet Marjorie at 85, in the final year of her life, struggling with her failing memory. The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is not explicitly stated, but her dementia is evident. Once a talented violinist, Marjorie is a widow, whose daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law John (Tim Robbins) are living with her in the gorgeous seaside home Marjorie once shared with her husband Walter.
Marjorie is the first person we see on screen, followed shortly by Walter Prime (Jon Hamm), whom we soon learn is a holographic incarnation of her dead husband, as he looked in his prime. The word has a dual connotation here. When referring to the holograms, it is used to distinguish them from the original human version. The living, who seek out the companionship of primes, can choose at what age they want to resurrect their loved one. Marjorie opts for Walter at 40.
We desperately want to remember those we loved and to keep them alive in our thoughts, and the existence of primes offer an opportunity to manifest this human desire.
Walter Prime’s programming includes mundane reminders like urging Marjorie to eat something (in her state she’s bound to forget). Mostly, however, he’s there to jog her memories and to provide emotional comfort. Their conversations can be funny, sharp, rambling or sweet, and nearly always melancholy.
Given the promise of technology, the concept of a talking hologram that captures a loved one’s physical likeness and is programmed with essential facts seems entirely within the scope of possibility. The film’s fascinating premise, rendered in rather low-tech fashion without the aid of CG razzle-dazzle, is related to other masterful films like “Her” and “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
Most of the story takes place in Marjorie’s strikingly appointed oceanfront home, but there’s never a feeling of claustrophobia. The location makes perfect sense, given the story. Almereyda weaves in some background — flashbacks that provide just a jot of useful context and reveal themselves more like moving snapshots. These sequences are few and impeccably inserted.
Davis and Robbins give their best performances in years. Hamm lends his character just the right blend of earnestness, his rigid posture and slightly tentative expression conveying subtly that he’s not human. But his words — he’s programmed to “speak in fragments and misplaced modifiers” — sound profoundly human.
Davis’s Tess is complicated, whip-smart and vulnerable. She yearns for a more loving bond with her mother and is still processing a family tragedy that happened when she was six. She sits down to play the piano. We instantly recognize the few bars of “I Shall be Released.” The song comes up again later, in a version by The Band. Tess’s physical posture as she listens to it speaks volumes.
With a score beautifully rendered by Mica Levi (“Jackie”), perhaps including the song twice is more than necessary. Clearly, Tess is seeking release from emotional turmoil, but the film’s use of the song avoids feeling heavy-handed. So much is cryptic and alluded to as the story unravels that we hang on gratefully to this bit of musical exposition.
Along with Robbins, Davis and Hamm, Stephanie Andujar is also excellent in a small part as Marjorie’s caretaker. Good as the ensemble cast is, however, “Marjorie Prime” is Smith’s film. Hers is a brilliant performance. Watching her inspires the kind of awe one feels when looking at the brushstrokes of an artistic masterpiece. Smith’s every gesture and vocal intonation serves to impeccably render a vivid, multi-faceted person. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.
“Marjorie Prime” is a contemplative, intimate and poetic chamber piece, superbly told and nimbly acted, with equal parts nuance and empathy.