Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival. Bleecker Street releases the film in theaters on Friday, September 24.
The concept of human-robot love has provided fertile ground for sci-fi storytelling, from Data in “Star Trek” to the disembodied voice of “Her” all the way through “Ex Machina” and “Wandavision,” because it presents an obvious paradox: No amount of engineering genius, it seems, can design the perfect mate. “I’m Your Man,” the winsome, somewhat listless but often insightful new romance from German director Maria Schrader, inverts that formula: A machine may provide the ideal companion, but that very question for perfection is part of the problem.
Actor-turned-director Schrader, who last handled Netflix’s breakout miniseries hit “Unorthodox,” has once again made a movie about one woman learning to come to terms with her greater potential. In that respect, “I’m Your Man” is only sci-fi in the flimsiest sense, and seems less invested in epistemological questions than the way they speak to its protagonist’s soul-searching malaise. Alma (Maren Egert) is an established scientist at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum working on a complex research project about ancient cuneiform when she agrees to a bizarre experiment: Spend three weeks with a robot humanoid named Tom (Dan Stevens) who has been built by a mysterious company to be her ideal mate. Alma, a workaholic who seems to relish the solitary life, doesn’t exactly embrace the assignment. With time, however, Tom’s eager-to-please machinery unlocks much of the deep-seated dissatisfaction plaguing her life.
As the movie begins, Tom has already been fully realized as a slick, seductive figure, ready to take a reluctant Alma onto the dance floor and please her at every turn. Schrader and co-writer Jan Schomburg, adapting the short story by Emma Braslavsky, even find a clever workaround for the British actor’s English accent (“you’re attracted to men who are slightly foreign”). After Tom glitches out at the public gathering where Alma’s tasked with meeting him, she tries to wriggle out of the project to no avail. Soon, the movie becomes a delicate sort of odd couple dramedy, as Alma tries to explain to the cheery robot now staying at her apartment that she has no interest in developing an intimate bond with him, much less getting into the sack together.
Despite a few cheap hologram effects early on, “I’m Your Man” shows little interest in the sci-fi backdrop, instead using it to animate a bittersweet two-hander about the nature of Alma’s existence. Yet because Tom possesses a computerized mind, he’s capable of calculating details about the nature of Alma’s work that force her to confront her underlying frustrations, as well as her history with her ex (Hans Lowe) that led her to such an unhappy state. There are no high-tech glimpses of Tom’s machinery or confrontations with the shadowy organization that designed him, save for the occasional check in from a fellow robot (“Toni Erdmann” star Sandra Huller). Instead, Tom becomes a kind of live-in therapist for Alma, to the point where “I’m Your Man” often takes on a minimalist appeal that might have worked better on the stage: The actors hold enough appeal in their constant back-and-forths, as the genial Tom pokes at Alma’s neuroses until the truth comes out, that everything else feels like filler.
Eggers, whose stern, tired expression eventually gives way to the deep sorrow beneath the surface, grounds the character’s transition into credible emotion. Yet it’s Stevens, whose versatility keeps expanding its reach, who really carries the movie through some of its blander passages. A world apart from the exuberance of his show-stealing turn in last year’s “Eurovision Song Content,” Stevens gives Tom a gentle exterior at odds with the cold machinery of his character’s internal design. It’s clear from the start that Tom possess more humanity than meets the eye, if only because he provides the sounding board for disillusionment plaguing Alma’s life. With time, he takes on a kind of internal voice for the character, not arguing with her so much as filling the gaps about the source of her loneliness and why it continues to haunt her.
There’s so much appeal to watching the chemistry between this pair evolve that “I’m Your Man” becomes a lesser movie whenever it wanders into various subplots, including an aimless situation involving Alma’s senile father. Tonally, the movie often struggles to sort out whether it’s a disarming romcom or a straight drama, leading to some listless passages as Alma gets frustrated, then awestruck, by Tom’s insights into her life. These often come at the expense of understanding whether Tom himself experiences genuine emotions or any semblance of attraction, though Stevens gives the character enough of an affable presence to suggest as much.
“I’m Your Man” underserves the robot at its center, but that’s also sort of the point: This isn’t some kind of paean to the prospects of cybernetic attraction so much as a meditation on loneliness and desire. The movie’s thematic trajectory crystallizes in a bittersweet third act, as a series of poetic moments draw the story back to the roots of Alma’s struggles, and suggest that no perfect code can solve her problems when the best antidote is her own ability to talk them through.
“I’m Your Man” premiered at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival.
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