Why Aren’t You Watching: Marjorie Prime

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Hey you with the remote in your hand. Why aren’t you watching Marjorie Prime?

Why You Probably Aren’t: Ok, maybe I’ll let you off the hook here. I’m the person who usually keeps up with these things, and I have zero memory of this movie coming out in August of last year. I’m imagining it never had much of a chance to make an impact anyway, released in the middle of a season of ‘splosions and superheros at the box office.

Plus, this is a film about death, memory, intimacy, death, mortality, tech, relationships and death. Wheee! So much fun. Who wouldn’t want to take the whole family to this light-hearted romp at the theater? Also no one THAT famous is in it, unless you count post-Mad Men Jon Hamm, and maybe you shouldn’t, cause most people couldn’t pick him out of a line-up of  the ‘still handsome but sorta washed-up stars of 10 years ago prestige TV.’

So it’s a downer of a topic, with no big names, oh and I did I mention it’s based on a play? I mean, aren’t all your favorite movies? Like Die Hard was based on that one play – “How Hard Doth the Day Dieth?” Ok, that’s a lie, and yeah, there aren’t too many reasons I can think of for anyone to sprint to the local cineplex to catch this one.

Why You Should Be: 

This movie first caught my eye when it popped up on my Amazon Prime “recommended to watch” list. If you’ve seen it there too, and the poster had you wondering why is the still handsome and somewhat famous Jon Hamm hanging out with that older lady I don’t recognize, the film’s tagline succinctly explains, “Eighty-six-year-old Marjorie spends her final, ailing days with a computerized version of her deceased husband.”  So now we know that Hamm’s character is a robot….kind of….or more like a hologram, a “computerized version” of someone who once lived, and in this case that someone is a reproduction of Marjorie’s husband from decades ago, a man who was called “Walter” while he was alive.

The technological advances that allow for Walter Primes to exist in this world (which feels almost identical to our own, only a few decades into our future) are never given much explanation or weight over the course of the movie. At one point, another character named Jon (an excellent Tim Robbins) chuckles when he realizes Walter Prime has skills he wasn’t even aware of, saying he hadn’t really “read the brochure” – something I can imagine any of us saying to our Alexas or Siris (of course they’re not capable of impersonating our late loved ones….yet?) That kind of exchange sets the stage for a plot full of big ideas and a science fiction drama that’s heavy on the drama.

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see, we can still have fun even though everything dies and turns to dust eventually

Now as someone who usually loves her sci-fi full of action and set in space, that last sentence would usually make me pause and wonder, “Do I really want to sit through this seemingly very dour and slow-paced movie?” So it’s fair to ask what elevates Marjorie Prime to the level of something I’d write about here (yes, here on my very very exclusive “blog”) and something I’d recommend you try and see as soon as possible. The reason, why in short – the complexity and nuance of those big ideas and the skill with which they’re explored.  Marjorie is an old woman who’s ill and probably dying – there’s no sugarcoating that and yet the film makes room for her to be so many other things as well. Our lead, Lois Smith, who herself is 87 and has been acting for over 65 years, never allows us to pity Marjorie as the “poor old woman” in the room. Yet she takes full advantage of being at the center of her own story, which older folks are so rarely allowed to do. Smith played this role on stage prior to filming the movie, and maybe it was there she honed her vision for Marjorie — mischievous, funny and stubborn. Proud and smart and wanting to face the truth about her present and future – “I’m not getting better, am I?” she asks early on – even as she tries to hang on to the slippery past.

That past is where Walter Prime comes in – Hamm plays him as a cipher for the emotions of everyone around him: Marjorie, her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and Tom, Tess’s husband. The strictures of the AI role turn Hamm’s usual robotic charm into a kind of choppy and formalized geniality. He’s a computer program of a neighborhood car salesman, constantly rebooting. Walter Prime’s interpretation of the their past is the one he’s been fed by the family, each one in turn confiding in him (or not) their remembrances of the young Walter whom he resembles, and of the events that in turn began their relationships and then upended them. It’s an incredibly deft device to explore the pitfalls of our ability to recall our own histories. Whether our memories are obstructed by age and illness or simply by an unwillingness to recall the thing we can’t endure, they fail us, and sometimes save us, in so many ways. As Marjorie sees her ending approach, she acknowledges that her fading mind may serve another inclination, that “to leave everything behind. To pack lightly”. In turns, sad and joyful, but never wholly bleak, Marjorie Prime is a minimalist meditation on life, death and whatever comes after. It asks us to contemplate both what we carry with us on our mortal journey and what we leave behind to those who follow.

Marjorie Prime is available for streaming now with an Amazon Prime membership

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