Marjorie Prime.

Marjorie Prime is a soft science-fiction movie that delivers a brooding, dark meditation on the interlocking nature of grief and memory, buoyed by a thought-provoking idea at its center and carried by several individual strong performances in demanding roles. Set almost entirely in one house, the film moves slowly through time for its first half, then undergoes a disconcerting acceleration that leads to a concluding scene that doesn’t deliver on the promise of the remainder of the film.

Marjorie, played by Lois Smith, is an 85-year-old widow whom we meet in the opening scene as she talks to a young man named Walter, played by Jon Hamm. Walter is actually Walter Prime, a holographic projection, powered by a machine-learning program, and Marjorie talks to Walter Prime to grieve the real Walter, her late husband, while teaching the AI how to be more like the real Walter was … or how she remembers him, at least. Her own memory is starting to fail, and her adult daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law John (Tim Robbins), have moved in with her; getting Walter Prime was John’s idea, and he also speaks to the AI to try to further train it, which includes teaching it certain subjects to avoid when it is with Marjorie, while Tess is uncomfortable with the illusion and more than a little creeped out by it. As the title implies, Marjorie dies, and we then get Marjorie Prime to help Tess grieve, so we see glimpses of the early learning process, along with a few flashbacks to reveal the truth of certain anecdotes the people and the Primes share with each other.

The script relies almost entirely on dialogue, which puts a tremendous weight on the actors involved to execute it, and to envelop the audience in the philosophical and emotional questions the script raises. How do we grieve? How do we remember the loved ones we’ve lost – and to what extent are our memories functions of what we choose, rather than what our brains have stored? (There’s one scene that’s a little too explanatory on this point.) Why does Marjorie choose a very young version of Walter for his Prime, while Tess chooses Marjorie as she was just a few years before her death? Why does she ‘correct’ Walter Prime’s story about the night when Walter proposed to Marjorie? Do the Primes give the bereaved closure, or merely prolong the grieving to a harmful extent? In Marjorie’s case, Walter Prime seems to help, and John has set up the AI to encourage Marjorie to eat (and deduce when she’s not eating), while Tess seems to suffer from the experience of talking to Marjorie Prime in the second phase of the story. The film asks how we should grieve, but the answer it gives seems no more specific than “it depends on the person.”

The four main actors do all of the heavy lifting in this film, with just brief appearances by a few others. Hamm only has to play a Prime, except for one flashback scene, but has to convince the audience that his affect and expressions are real enough to evoke genuine conversations with the bereaved, which he does thoroughly and handsomely, displaying a little rakish charm in the film’s final scene. Robbins was the revelation here; I’ve seen plenty of his work and often found him too obtrusive an actor, a big guy who could only deliver a big personality on screen. In Marjorie Prime, he’s understated throughout, playing small in voice and in deed. When John has one brief moment where he acts out of frustration, it’s shocking because it’s so out of character, and Robbins loses just enough of his equilibrium to keep John together as, a heartbeat later, Tess enters the room. He’s also kind to Marjorie in the way of a doting son-in-law, a counterweight to Tess’s resentful, frustrated daughter, which Davis presents by frequently talking through her teeth.

(In general, I don’t discuss the physical appearance of actresses, because it’s superficial and generally irrelevant, and the pressure on women in film & TV to never age must be immense. Something was amiss with Davis’ face in this film, however; whether it’s plastic surgery, Botox, or something beyond her control, it altered her way of speaking in a way that I found distracting and a little hard to understand.)

Smith’s portrayal of Marjorie, first as person and then as Prime, hit me a little more than the other performances because she had some of the same expressions and cadences as my own grandmother did in the last few years of her life, including the same gait – not quite a shuffle, but a careful one, the walk of someone whose every step shows her awareness of the possibility of a fall. There’s a scene early in the film where John is standing behind a seated Marjorie, and she turns to talk to him … and in her facial expression I saw my grandmother, making the same face, talking to me as I stood behind her (she was tiny, no more than about 4’9″, so she didn’t have to be seated for this to take place). Smith hits all of the micro-elements of an elderly person facing both mortality and memory loss, like the little irritations at having someone prompt her with something she did remember, or the visual response to the confusion of, say, asking about someone who died many years ago.

The flaw in Marjorie Prime is the script’s failure to stick the landing, reminiscent of a film I just mentioned the other day, Being John Malkovich, which had a brilliant premise but sputtered at the conclusion without any real resolution of the movie’s many plot strands. Marjorie Prime has one real plot, rolling it forward a few times, but the end of the movie shifts the focus from the living to the Primes, creating far more questions than it resolves. Are we to empathize with the Primes now? Is it a comment on our own impermanence, and how technology may outlive us all? Should we feel some obligation to AI entities we create and teach? And if any of this was the point, where were these themes in the first 90 or so minutes of the film?

If you can live with a film that broaches important or thought-provoking ideas but doesn’t quite resolve its plot, then you should seek out Marjorie Prime, which is still in theaters. It’s a quick 98 minutes, even though it’s so dialogue-driven – there is no ‘action’ to speak of here, but there’s a sense of peeling away the layers of the family history that provides some narrative greed. And these characters are so well-inhabited that you’ll be glad to have the Primes around when one of them dies.

Comments

  1. Have you seen Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris? if so, did you enjoy that ending and/or feel like the ending resolved the plot?

  2. Larry I in L.A.

    This film was recently recommended to us…by Lois Smith! The Saturday before last, Conny and I were driving down Pass Avenue in Burbank when we noticed a familiar face. So as not to appear too stalkerish, we pulled over several yards ahead. After getting Miss Smith’s attention, we told her how much we enjoyed her performance in a relatively recent guest shot on The Americans. She seemed genuinely pleased, and graciously chatted with us a few minutes. It turns out she lives in NY but was out here to see her agent regarding an upcoming opportunity. When she mentioned that her afternoon stroll turned out to be more ambitious than she’d planned, Conny offered her a lift and Miss Smith climbed into our Subaru. As we chauffeured her the few blocks to her hotel, she told us about Marjorie Prime. I guess we pretty much have to go see it now, don’t we?

  3. Have you seen the Black Mirror episode from 2013 called “Be Right Back” except instead of holograms, you could order walking talking mannequins which “learned” their behavior from downloading the deceased’s entire social media history. It was a very interesting take. It sounds like this movie could be similar

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