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Marjorie Prime: a reflective future vision

August 31, 2017

I am a strong advocate for bringing more theater to more places.  An easier and more traveled road is to reimagine a dramatic stage piece for the screen.  Marjorie Prime makes this journey in style, in large part because of intelligent decisions made by the creative team.

Set against today’s swirling conversation about the pros and cons of artificial intelligence, Marjorie Prime centers on the relationship between a family and a computer program capable of reproducing a deceased loved one.  Rather than dwelling on the more obvious debate of whether such a program is healthy or sinister, the story turns to a more intriguing examination of memories and the role they play in coping with great loss.  The particulars facing Marjorie and her daughter and son-in-law may be singular, but their experience is completely relatable.


©️ FilmRise

The first wise choice behind the scenes was to retain the eternally dazzling Lois Smith as Marjorie, a role she played at LA’s Mark Taper Forum and Playwrights Horizons in New York.  All too often, filmmakers cast aside a theatrical leading lady for a lesser actress who is a bigger box office draw. Smith — a working actress since the 1950s, from East of Eden to The Americans — may receive 3rd billing, but she is the beating heart of the piece, giving Marjorie depth and breath with each flash of memory across her face.  Her mastery of physically expressed emotion is critical to the success of moving from chapter one to chapter two of the story.

Ms. Smith is bolstered by an award-winning cast that includes Geena Davis as daughter Tess, Tim Robbins as son-in-law Jon, and Jon Hamm as deceased husband Walter.  As chief architect of Marjorie’s memories, Mr. Robbins beautifully rises to the challenge of having to move through varying levels of control and surrender.  Hamm is perfect as the AI-driven hologram, or “Prime,”  trying to replicate feelings and impressions with words.  Ms. Davis is the least committed, drifting over the surface of her torn and tortured character.  I can’t help but think I would have vastly preferred the astonishing Lisa Emery reprising her stage performance.

Original playwright Jordan Harrison, who was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for this drama, has a deep personal connection to the storyline. His grandmother suffered from dementia and he was struck by how much of her day was consumed by reconstructing joyful memories of who she loved and what she was good at.  He had also been affected by reading The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive, a book by Brian Christian that explores humanity in man and machine.

Harrison’s genuine passion for the themes isn’t quite as firmly planted in Michael Almereyda’s adaptation.  His revision is sometimes choppy and poorly paced, which detracts from the mood of the original. While many of the other decisions made by Almereyda with his producer/director hat on were likely financial driven, they serve the piece well.  The film was shot in three weeks on a few well-selected locations.  Most of the action — if one can use that word to describe a film composed almost entirely of dialogue and scenery — takes place in Marjorie’s beach house.  This allows Almereyda to bring in elements of nature, the best timekeeper of them all.   The sea and sand color palate is enmeshed in the entire film by cinematographer Sean Williams and production designer Javiera Varas. Music plays an important role and is well selected by supervisor Lucy Bright.  Effects are kept to a minimum, allowing the talent to do the heavy lifting.

Marjorie Prime explores aging, loss and memory in a more expansive way than other recent entries.  The overall smallness of the production reduces the usual distraction of sci-fi and allows for more big thinking.  Whether this leaves you comforted or disturbed is likely influences by how recently you’ve experienced the death of a loved one.  It was released in New York by FilmRise on August 18.  Running time is 1:38.  National theater and DVD releases to be announced.

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