Marjorie Prime: Who Were You?, by David Bax
Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime takes place almost entirely in one room. In an ordinary case, that might be a demerit, chalked up to an inability to transfer the story from its original form as a play (by Jordan Harrison) into a more cinematic form. Here, though, Almereyda makes this one room the nexus around which the rest of the movie’s reality revolves. Beyond this room, the characters and the world change drastically as time pushes forward, as evidenced by having one scene take place with a growing snowstorm raging outside the window. The past recedes and mutates even as the characters try their best to hold onto it. It’s dizzying to contemplate but, thankfully, we can ground ourselves in this space, the way a drunk might fall asleep with one foot on the floor to stop the room from spinning.
Almereyda teases us a bit with the first scene, in which Marjorie (Lois Smith) suddenly finds herself talking to a man (Jon Hamm) who wasn’t there a moment ago. Is this a memory? A hallucination? Quickly, though, we are brought up to speed. It’s the somewhat near (but not too near) future, Marjorie is developing Alzheimer’s and the man is a holographic AI taking the form of her late husband, Walter, at the age at which she has chosen to remember him. Walter and Marjorie talk and, the more she tells him, the more he learns about himself.
Rounding out the cast are Geena Davis as Tess, Marjorie and Walter’s daughter, who is skeptical of the technology and the effect it’s having on her mother and their relationship, and Tim Robbins as Jon, Tess’s husband, who is much more eager to embrace the AI, which they call Walter Prime. Stephanie Andujar also appears as Julie, Marjorie’s nurse. As one might expect of such an assemblage of talent, the performances are stellar throughout. I’d like to single out Hamm, though. The goals of acting in a film can be boiled down into two objectives. One is to create an honest character. As the only nonhuman in the cast, Walter is arguably the least dynamic person onscreen and, by that rubric, perhaps the least challenging role. The other objective, though, is to serve the film. In that sense, it is incumbent on Hamm to sell us this reality, this version of the future. As a movie that takes place in a domestic setting recognizable to most 2017 viewers, Walter bears the entirety of the science fiction load. It’s an absolutely crucial role and what Hamm does with it is nothing short of perfect. This is the best performance of his career so far.
Where Marjorie Prime does stay cagey is in pinpointing what year all of this is happening. All we know for sure is that Marjorie is the only one here to have been born in the twentieth century and that, in her memory, her engagement to Walter is somehow tied up with the 1997 movie My Best Friend’s Wedding. Beyond that, it’s not clear but it’s also probably best that we not think about it too much since—it’s only the slightest of spoilers to tell you—the movie takes place over multiple years.
If it’s a bit disorienting to only see this strange world from one, limited vantage point, that’s probably Almereyda’s intention. It’s reflected in his framing and editing, as well (by cinematographer Sean Price Williams and editor Kathryn J. Schubert). While each shot is careful, patient and measured, there are occasional and abrupt changes in visual perspective, such as in the opening scene when a fairly standard rhythm of back and forth medium shots is interrupted by a high angle look down at Marjorie from a point of view no character in the room could possess. It’s at times as if the movie is an object being looked over by puzzled aliens.
Really, Marjorie is the alien, steadily being distanced by her disease from anything she can recognize. Or maybe it’s really Walter, a simulacrum built of learned mannerisms and stories, who is not of this world. But still no; this is a movie about memory and the way it makes us all both more comfortable and more estranged from reality. Marjorie can pretend to stave off her fading memories by joking about how she’ll forget embarrassing moments or coming up with the word she wants by poking at words around it. “Spice, Spanish, expensive,” she says while trying to pinpoint a specific color before Walter offers, “Saffron” (they’re talking about Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s 2005 Central Park installation “The Gates,” another chronological clue). But as these memories go, so does the Marjorie that she’s curated and assembled from her own versions of her experiences, the Marjorie she’s presented to others. Marjorie Prime is a movie about memory but it’s also a movie about identity, arguing convincingly eloquently that the two are synonyms.