Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Director Michael Almereyda often uses postmodern prickliness to bring us closer to his subjects. He courts obviousness, underlining his meanings so that we won’t miss them; yet his work has a quicksilver quality that belies its didacticism. It can sharpen your perceptions, bringing you to a state of pleasant cogitation that makes you feel as though you’ve retreated into your headspace. It helps that Almereyda is so attentive to mood and setting. In his 1994 “Nadja,” the atmosphere of ironic-posh alienation revealed the characters’ romanticism as a kind of protective garment — as ephemeral and as lovely as the shoegaze pop on the movie’s soundtrack. In 2015’s “Experimenter,” the shifting planes of the sets and narrative highlighted the way in which our sense of reality is inseparable from our manner of testing it. If we devote our lives to developing a theory of the world, at what point does the theory become the world, and the world change to conform to it?
In Almereyda’s latest, “Marjorie Prime,” adapted by the director from a play by Jordan Harrison, a family deals with the gradual loss of its members by replacing them with artificially intelligent holograms. In the opening scene, the aged Marjorie, played by Lois Smith, talks to a recreation of her dead husband, Walter. Portrayed by Jon Hamm, the hologram — it’s named Walter Prime — is half Marjorie’s age; it’s a representation of the handsome Walter of fifty years prior. So it’s no surprise that Marjorie looks at it with longing. But there’s a hint of the predatory there as well. For we gradually realize that this is Marjorie’s Walter; its consciousness exists for her benefit; she owns it. Even so, when she tells the faux Walter that she feels the need to perform for it, she’s being truthful: The hologram’s performance is drawn from her memories; without her input, it has nothing to work with, no material. In return the hologram engages in a performance of its own — a performance designed to seduce Marjorie. When it tells her a story, we understand that it’s reciting her cherished memories. In doing so it imbues them with a vividness that her failing mind won’t permit. Perhaps it even rewrites those memories. Like the two women in Bergman’s “Persona,” Marjorie and her electronic amanuensis constitute a feedback loop. Where does one personality end and the other begin?
Occasionally Almereyda opens up the play by inserting a flashback to the characters’ past lives. Since they’re unmediated — untainted by repetition and performance — they’re our only glimpses of the family’s actual history. In one such flashback, the youthful Marjorie canoodles in bed with Walter; the 1997 “My Best Friend’s Wedding” plays on a television. Walter proposes to Marjorie in a way that’s perhaps too casual. We immediately recognize that the flashback doesn’t jibe with Marjorie’s memory of the moment, as expressed by Walter Prime in the opening scene. In the memory the couple saw the movie in a grand theater. It was a big moment; there was nothing casual about it. Did the hologram invent this embellishment or did Marjorie? Either way, its extravagance has replaced the mundanity of the actual event — reordered it as a recording head reorders the particles on a magnetic tape. Now it’s the reality for Marjorie and hologram alike.
The plot of “Majorie Prime” is riddled with false memories, unfounded stories, and elisions. Late in the film, a story concerning one of Marjorie’s former suitors is revealed to be the partial invention of her daughter and son-in-law, Tess (Geena Davis) and Jon (Tim Robbins). In order to pad her ego they’ve given her the impression that she rejected a tennis pro; in reality, he was in the drywall business. Does a part of Marjorie recognize the tale as bunk? Smith’s performance, a diaphanous evocation of the cunning naivety of old age, suggests that possibility. On the other hand, Marjorie has heard the story so many times that it might as well be real; its telling has become a ritual with a value independent of veracity. Why contradict it? Though Jon calls the story a “harmless lie,” other fibs cut deeper. Over the course of the film we learn that as a young woman Marjorie lost her son, Damien. Though it was a defining moment, she’s suppressed her memory of it, a lie of omission in which the whole family is complicit. Is this lie also harmless? By forgetting Damien the family has attempted to erase him, but his specter persists; his absence is felt in the awkward shapes their conversations take as they talk around his existence. And the consciousness of this evasion has left a poisonous residue. “I hated him,” says Tess, without apparent guilt. In an act of transference as troubling as it is understandable, Marjorie has moved her memories of Damien onto the late family dog. She catches herself when she refers to its fur as “hair”; the shadow of a barely understood revulsion flits across her face.
It’s too simplistic to say that “Marjorie Prime” is about the fudginess of memory. Harrison and Almereyda are after something more elusive. They’re trying to pin down the subjectiveness of personality, of relationships, of communal narrative. Like the Primes (in addition to Walter, we meet electronic recreations of Marjorie and Tess), the movie’s viewers engage in an act of intuitive reconstruction. Presented with the chunks of a family’s history, we fill in the gaps between them, inevitably adding our own biases to the emerging model. Is this not how shared notions of history take form? That these notions contain inaccuracies is admitted by the movie’s writers through their inclusion of at least one historical red herring: The composer of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is not Mozart, as the characters of “Marjorie Prime” believe, but an unknown songwriter, a person whose name has failed to find a place in our collective memory. (Does that absence mean the composer never existed?) Being a movie buff, Almereyda can’t help but wink at the issue of unreliable memory via a film reference: A flashback scene depicting the first meeting of Tess and Jon takes place in a museum whose walls are painted to resemble the gardens in “Last Year at Marienbad.”
It’s to Almereyda’s credit that “Marjorie Prime” never feels like a puzzle movie. Its revelations are gradual rather than abrupt; even the deaths of major characters seem to register subconsciously, as though we’re remembering rather than experiencing them. Wisely, the chamber-drama structure has been taken as the basis for the film’s aesthetic; the nondescript domestic settings are as anodyne as the pacing, and Sean Price Williams’ diffuse lighting makes everything look a little transient, like a sunset. Almereyda and his team prove that philosophical sci-fi doesn’t require scale and showy ponderousness to put its points across. Despite its modesty, “Marjorie Prime” is sprightly, engaging, and profound; it expresses in 100 minutes what the handsomely catatonic “Blade Runner 2049” merely suggests in 160.
In the movie’s final scene the electronic shades of Walter, Marjorie, and Tess engage in a conversation. They trade tales, all derived from their now-deceased human subjects. Left without their fleshy reference points, sources of new material, will they eventually converge on a single consciousness, all of them repeating the same details of the same stories for eternity, or are they capable of improvising? Their discussion may provide a clue: In their retelling of Walter’s proposal to Marjorie, the movie they attend is not “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” but “Casablanca.”