In a beautiful beachfront home, an elderly woman talks with her forty-something husband. In his soothing, crisp baritone voice, he tells her the story of the time he proposed to her. She likes this story, and all the other stories he tells.
But the man in front of her isn’t really her husband, or even a man, but a “prime,” a computer simulation of her long-dead spouse.
It’s with that hook of gentle sci-if that “Marjorie Prime,” an intriguing little drama, hangs its narrative. The film is set during a future that looks like our own time, only computers are advanced enough to convincingly mimic humans. They’re not used as killers or friends or digital assistants, but as therapy, reminders of people who have shuffled off this mortal coil. These “primes” mimic people we know because, as a character speculates, we all have things left to say to the dead.
The old movie star Lois Smith is the elderly Marjorie, widow to Walter (Jon Hamm), mother to Tess (Geena Davis), mother-in-law to Jon (Tim Robbins).
Based on a play by Jordan Harrison and directed by Michael Almereyda, the film deftly explores its intriguing premise. It refuses to sentimentalize its characters, organic and otherwise, but it’s not detached. There’s a humility to it, a lack of pretension as it probes the way memories stack on one another and shift shapes, not only defining who we are but changing who we are from day-to-day.
When Marjorie and others speak to the primes, they walk a fine line between affection for the deceased and the detached cognizance one has when talking to a computer. Even as the characters attempt to exorcise their demons, they know the real person isn’t there. While the primes’ function is presumably to help humans get over lingering issues, what the humans are really using the primes for, probably unconsciously, is to help their loved ones cheat mortality, just a little bit.
The camera gives the affluent setting a clinically clean beauty, part home, part psychologist’s office, part art gallery, with weather alternating between warm sunshine and soothing rain.
Time goes by and each member of the family has time with the Primes. Marjorie, the end of her life looming, takes comfort in her husband’s image and voice. Later, Geena and Jon each face their own demons through a prime, peeling away the family’s buried secrets one layer at a time, the computers absorbing everything and using it to build a rich mimicry of life. As science fiction, the film is narrow but deep.
The same stories get told over and over, but in different ways and with crucial context added or omitted. They recall Tony, the family’s childhood dog, who may or may not have enjoyed the beach, as well as a long-buried family member whose demise set the stage for these conversations.
All involved give sensational performances. Hamm’s authoritative calm makes him the perfect avatar for a prime. Robbins exhibits a gentle wisdom and sadness as the in-law with just enough distance to see the family for what it is. Smith is lovely as the matriarch balanced between cognizance and senility, while Davis channels the mellow melancholy of a woman disinterested in life.
It’s that attention to the way memory and perception shape our feelings towards our loved ones. In one sweetly sad moment, Marjorie, remembering the time Walter proposed after watching “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” tells Walter Prime “What if we saw Casablanca instead? Let’s say we saw Casablanca in an old theater with velvet seats, and then on the way home, you proposed. Then, by the next time we talk, it will be true.” This gentle insight into our mental frailties is what extends “Marjorie Prime” beyond a mere exercise in psychology. The film takes its characters and ties their memories together like threads, making a tapestry that, like a real family, is greater than the sum of its parts.