Haunting 'Marjorie Prime' Is Suffused With Forgiveness And Despair

Aug 21, 2017
Originally published on August 25, 2017 9:32 am
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new film "Marjorie Prime" is set in the near future in a world where people can purchase holographic versions of their dead loved ones. The movie, directed by Michael Almereyda, stars Lois Smith, Geena Davis, Tim Robbins and Jon Hamm as the first hologram - or prime - that we meet. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: There are four main characters in the haunting sci-fi chamber drama "Marjorie Prime," some of them computer-generated holograms of the dead. A better title would be "Ghost Sonata," but Strindberg already used it. It opens with a gentle conversation between Lois Smith's 85-year-old Marjorie and Jon Hamm as her husband Walter, who died 15 years earlier. The holograms are called primes. And Marjorie's daughter and son-in-law have bought her one. Walter Prime looks so young, like Jon Hamm, because Marjorie asked for one at the age he was when they were married.

Here's how it works. The prime begins as more or less a blank slate. But by the time, we meet Walter Prime, he's absorbed the key information about Marjorie's life. He can reminisce, share stories and respond to questions. Since Marjorie has growing dementia, Walter Prime might soon, quote, "remember more of her life than she does." The 86-year-old Lois Smith has a brightness, a girlishness that makes her loss of memory seem even more poignant.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARJORIE PRIME")

LOIS SMITH: (As Marjorie) I feel like I have to perform around you.

JON HAMM: (As Walter) It's just me. It's just Walter.

SMITH: (As Marjorie) Maybe it's not bad if I feel that way. I used to entertain a lot.

HAMM: (As Walter) I remember.

SMITH: (As Marjorie) Do you?

HAMM: (As Walter) Of course. Marjorie, where are the dishes?

SMITH: (As Marjorie) The girl did them - Julie.

HAMM: (As Walter) She doesn't come until 2.

SMITH: (As Marjorie) I did them.

HAMM: (As Walter) You didn't. Your arthritis.

SMITH: (As Marjorie) I'm having a good day.

HAMM: (As Walter) Marjorie, we both know what no dishes means.

SMITH: (As Marjorie) It means I haven't been eating.

HAMM: (As Walter) Only a spoonful of peanut butter.

SMITH: (As Marjorie) I'm not hungry. It's their fault, feeding me all those pills.

HAMM: (As Walter) The pills are their fault or your doctor's?

EDELSTEIN: Director Michael Almereyda adapted "Marjorie Prime" from a play by Jordan Harrison, much of it a series of conversations between family members and the primes who eventually take their places, all set in a beach house in the near future. At the movie's heart is a paradox that's rather stunning. Primes seem to have been invented to give comfort and companionship to the bereaved. But the bereaved don't use them just as vehicles for lovely pipe dreams. They end up saying things to primes that they couldn't say to the people on whom the primes were modeled. Jon Hamm looks so trim and open and receptive that the awkwardness between him and Marjorie fades.

But it's heartbreaking that as she grows closer to Walter Prime, she moves farther apart from her daughter, Tessa, played by Geena Davis. Davis is more transparent here, more real than at any time since her Oscar-winning performance in "The Accidental Tourist." As an actress, she's reborn. Completing the movie's quartet is Tim Robbins, very fine as Tessa's husband Jon, a desperate do-gooder who can't keep his wife's terrible childhood memories from flooding back. I slightly knew the writer-director Michael Almereyda in college and have come to know him better in the subsequent 30-ish years. I'm being as objective as I can when I say he's never achieved the reputation he deserves.

His 2001 "Hamlet" with Ethan Hawke and Kyle MacLachlin is a truly cinematic rethinking of that masterpiece. His documentaries "This So-Called Disaster" about Sam Shepard and "William Eggleston In The Real World" are revelatory. Last year's "Experimenter," a fictionalized treatment of the life of Yale social scientist Stanley Milgram, was playful in form but had real moral urgency. "Marjorie Prime" might be my favorite of his films.

An early review from its Sundance premiere described it as too chilly, which I find bizarre. Almereyda's careful framing, with its reflections and refractions and views of white sand and the gray ocean, seem the perfect stage for these characters. The detachment is Chekhovian, meaning he can study these people like a clinician but also have enormous empathy for the ways in which they fail to connect as their lives go by in what seems like a blink.

"Marjorie Prime" is not the kind of movie in which we learn the background of prime technology, who invented it and so on. It's sci-fi as a means of exploring our inner lives, the way Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry do in "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind." John Hamm's face as the holographic Walter Prime is not flat or neutral but radiantly not judgmental, even beatific, even beautiful. The movie is suffused with despair but also an abiding sense of forgiveness. It's transcendentally woebegone.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.