Intellectually stimulating yet dramatically stunted, Marjorie Prime is a futuristic film about the advent of virtual reality technology—a scientific breakthrough by which humans can be replicated after death. Adapted from a play by Jordan Harrison that was produced a few seasons ago off-Broadway starring the veteran actress Lois Smith, the film by Kansas-born writer-director Michael Almereyda has slim chances of commercial success, but for discerning art-house filmgoers, it does provide a welcome antidote to the usual surfeit of formulaic Hollywood junk.
Lois Smith recreates the title role with a heroic flourish rarely seen in the current cinema. Marjorie is a vulnerable 85-year-old widow nearing death who still mourns the loss of her husband Walter, who passed away 15 years earlier. Softening the grieving process, her companion is now a 40-year-old version of Walter himself (played by Jon Hamm, who shot to stardom in the “Mad Men” TV series)—actually a computerized human replica of Walter in the form of a hologram, brought back digitally to comfort his beloved wife as her memory begins to fade. Marjorie seems content with the arrangement, since it provides companionship and the only fond memories of her past before the fade and vanish with the cruelty of time. Eventually her reverie is interrupted and the positive role Walter plays begins to lose impact when the computerized Walter starts interacting with Marjorie’s brittle, exasperating daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and skeptical son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins), whose selfishly motivated and insincere fretting about Marjorie’s mental decline casts doubts on this new, experimental form of technology. Tess and Jon are an unhappy pair, and a flashback to the country club where Walter’s funeral in the rain is a powerful early warning signal of how their marriage would later sour.
Except for the character revelations in the flashbacks and moving the action of the play from an assisted living facility for seniors to a well-appointed beach house where Marjorie and Walter spent the happiest early days of their relationship, Mr. Almereyda shows little interest in opening up the play. It is still basically a one-set talkathon. Failing to expand its claustrophobic theatrical origins, it never seems like much a film at all. You feel like the actors will step out of character in the end and take a curtain call.
MARJORIE PRIME ★★★
The result is a slow-paced, esoteric study of how memory defines our lives and how the loss of it is proof that we all have a sell-by date to our human shelf life. It’s something to think about, but when the thinking is done out loud by everyone on the screen, the occasional silences seem more eloquent than usual—especially when accompanied by a Beethoven string quartet. The virtues in Marjorie Prime are modest, but the muted cinematography by Sean Price Williams adds enormously to the blurred vision of reality the characters feel throughout, and the cast is first-rate. If nothing else, you can relish the rare chance this film provides to watch Lois Smith at the full height of her skills. In a career spanning six decades, she’s been supple and moving in dozens of films, from East of Eden to Five Easy Pieces—but never earthier or more tender than Marjorie, grappling with both the fear and the reality of losing her memory with the aid of a robot. She’s the major element that saves Marjorie Prime from seeming like nothing more than an expanded episode of Twilight Zone.