Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Almost all of us can think of a loved one we would like to bring back from the dead. Filmmakers have explored the consequences—physical and psychological—of a literal resurrection for many years now. Writer-director Michael Almereyda’s latest film removes the miraculous from the hands of the divine and places it squarely under the control of programmers and mourning relatives. A digital “prime” emulates the deceased, learning incrementally not from any sci-fi voodoo of stored consciousness, but through stories and memories relayed to it by the living.
We first encounter a “prime” in the form of Walter (Jon Hamm). His still-living wife Marjorie (Lois Smith) suffers from memory loss; her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins) hope that Walter Prime learns on her good days and can help anchor her during the bad ones. Yet early on flaws in this arrangement reveal themselves. Retelling the story of their engagement, Walter Prime says he proposed after going to see My Best Friend’s Wedding. Put off by its banality, Marjorie insists that in future renditions it should instead happen after they watched Casablanca at an old cinema with plush velvet seats. Untethered from the man he’s meant to recreate, Walter Prime becomes a means of rewriting history, supplanting Marjorie’s life with finely tuned fantasy.
Many years elapse over the course of Marjorie Prime and Walter is not the only digital substitute we meet. As more family members pass, some stories are diluted and embellished, while other, darker secrets stay preserved through silence. Technology has paradoxically advanced to such a degree that we witness a family’s story gradually transferred to the shaky foundations of an oral history. Eventually one must wonder which should carry more weight: events as they happened in reality, or the memory of those events distorted by time and loving fibs.
The script, adapted from Jordan Harrison’s play of the same name, suffers from too much exposition. Rather than advance the thin plot (really just a series of vignettes) conversations between characters fill us in on what happened before the film begins, the technology on display, or deep-seated personality traits that somehow aren’t quite conveyed in the performances themselves. As Walter Prime, Jon Hamm manages an appropriate neutrality, inoffensively bland as he “learns” how to mimic his mortal predecessor. There is no reason, however, for the living cast to emulate him…but they do. Lois Smith comes closest to breaking free, though pulling off the shell of a once-vibrant woman can be difficult when we don’t get to experience her at her fullest first.
Classical music dominates the soundtrack; an ode to Marjorie’s past as a violinist. While beautiful to hear it comes across as a too-heavy counterbalance to the thin scripting between each piece. Marjorie Prime tries to tackle grand questions about memory and mortality, and it starts off in a promising near-future framework. Yet the entire time it feels like a stage play sucked dry of all the spirit found in live performances, a bland substitute struggling to ape its vibrant inspiration.
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