By Justin Chang
“It’s always nice to be lied to.” Those words are tossed off with a chuckle early on in “Marjorie Prime,” but by the end they have acquired an almost prophetic significance.
Beautiful untruths and half-truths abound in Michael Almereyda’s quietly shimmering new movie, which takes place in a somewhat distant future when our deceased loved ones can be summoned back as “Primes” — artificially intelligent holograms that, through the act of talking and listening, become repositories of our own deeply unreliable memories.
Adapted by Almereyda from Jordan Harrison’s 2014 play of the same title, the film is a seamless, unshowy weave of chamber piece and speculative fiction; at times it suggests a lo-fi companion piece to Spike Jonze’s “Her” or perhaps an unusually soothing episode of “Black Mirror.” The film unfolds almost entirely at an attractive beige-interiored beach house, where the 86-year-old Marjorie (Lois Smith) lives with her daughter, Tess (Geena Davis), and son-in-law, Jon (Tim Robbins). But when we first encounter Marjorie, she’s sitting down in her living room to speak with a man who identifies himself as Walter (Jon Hamm).
After a few moments of charmingly cryptic conversation, in which we register the lapses in her fading recollections and the faintly robotic courtliness of his manner, it becomes clear that Walter is a Prime, a friendly, consoling projection of Marjorie’s late husband. The real Walter died at a much older age, but Marjorie has chosen to resurrect him in all his mid-40s handsomeness — in his prime, as it were.
There is something almost too perfect about the idea of casting Hamm as an unreal, unattainable specimen of manhood, and the actor rises to the challenge with the drollest, trickiest performance in this gorgeously acted movie. Walter Prime’s compassion and curiosity are no less genuine for being programmed, and as he and Marjorie teasingly reminisce about the night he proposed, or about her past as a professional violinist, Hamm skillfully disguises every perfectly calculated response as a natural, spontaneous one.
But then, is there really such a huge difference to begin with? You can sense Walter Prime’s digital synapses firing each time Marjorie reacts, giving him new information to file away, something with which to vary his repertoire — which, if you think about it, is just a more polite, compartmentalized version of the way human-to-human intercourse normally operates. Theirs is a strangely intuitive form of therapy, built on the hope that their regular conversations about the past will not only give Marjorie comfort, but also stimulate her dementia-addled memory or at least slow her decline.
Not everyone is so optimistic. Tess, brittle and vulnerable, can’t help but feel skeptical about Marjorie bonding with an A.I., not least because she and her mother have never enjoyed that kind of easygoing intimacy. Jon, considerably more enthused, monitors Marjorie’s progress by selectively feeding, and filtering out, the Prime’s memories. Amid all the stray bits of data — an old job, a pet poodle — is the specter of Tess’ older brother, Damian, whose conspicuous absence from any of Marjorie and Walter Prime’s conversations feels more and more troubling as time goes on.
And go on it does. A change of scene can span months or even years, signaled by little more than a fade to black and the churning strings of another brilliant score by Mica Levi (“Under the Skin,” “Jackie”). Over the remainder of this precise, economical 98-minute film, the characters’ relationships will shift and reconfigure themselves in ways best left unrevealed here, although as the title suggests, Walter Prime isn’t the only hologram that will make an appearance. I could have happily watched various versions of Walter, Marjorie, Tess and Jon talk in different pairings for hours, even if their conversations weren’t so rich in ideas about the irresistible power of delusion, the tricky nature of memory and the dubious promise of technology.
For once, the isolated setting doesn’t constrict the material or cry out for a more “opened up” approach. (There is one romantic flashback set in a museum, in front of a mural of Versailles, that invokes “Last Year at Marienbad,” the most famously enigmatic of all memory films.) You can imagine a higher-tech version of “Marjorie Prime” that shows the holograms being engineered or the suits in charge making sinister backroom talk, but dystopian world-building doesn’t seem to interest Almereyda. He grounds the outlandish science-fiction conceit in an everyday domesticity that renders it all the more entrancingly bizarre.
Almereyda is a filmmaker of transporting lucidity. In films like his New York City modernization of “Hamlet” (2000) or “Experimenter” (2015), his playful drama about the researcher Stanley Milgram, the director drew upon elaborate, inventive formal devices that were remarkable for not just their cleverness, but also their intuitiveness. The simplicity of technique he achieves in “Marjorie Prime,” with its clean, elegant shot-reverse-shot setups, suits the irreducible complexity of the text, in which emotions and ideas are so entwined they’re practically interchangeable.
Smith, who played her role onstage, at once acknowledges and defies the rigidity of old age, bringing out Marjorie’s nervous excitement, her girlish mischief and her loosening grip on reality in a marvelously quicksilver turn. Robbins moves deftly from solid, dependable cheer to deep melancholy, his character fittingly bearing the brunt of the technology he so reveres.
The soul of the movie is Davis, and the thrill of seeing her in an all-too-rare film role would be enough even without the quiet depths of despair she brings to bear on the film’s most anguished figure. In one extraordinary scene, Tess simply sits and listens to a song, and Davis distills what feels like an entire lifetime’s worth of sorrow and joy into one wordless closeup, as if she were startled by her capacity for feeling and devastated that she didn’t realize it sooner. She’s unforgettable.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena, and Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, Santa Monica