‘Marjorie Prime’ Review: Jon Hamm as a Hologram Can’t Save This Lifeless Adaptation — Sundance 2017

Even with a vivid Holohamm and acting legend Lois Smith putting on a show, Michael Almereyda's adaptation of Jordan Harrison's Pulitzer nominee falls flat.
Marjorie Prime
"Marjorie Prime"
BB Film Productions

“I will remember that now.” Such is the repeated reply from the various “primes” — holograms, and damn fine ones — who populate Michael Almereyda’s “Marjorie Prime,” a big-screen adaptation of Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer-nominated play about artificial intelligence and the 85-year-old Marjorie, whose handsome companion is programmed to feed the story of her life back to her. Starring acting legend and multiple Tony nominee Lois Smith (reprising the role she originated on stage in 2014) with Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, and Tim Robbins, Almereyda’s feature is rich in acting talent, but this stagey, flat drama can’t match the wattage of its leads.

READ MORE: The 2017 IndieWire Sundance Bible: Every Review, Interview and News Item Posted During the Festival

Awkward pacing and questionable narrative choices pepper the feature, which starts strong and raises bigger questions to which it will return during its otherwise lumpy run. Now in her twilight years, Marjorie (Smith) struggles to remember things big and small, but she’s aided by a handsome hologram (Hamm) designed to look and act like her deceased husband, Walter. Like all primes, Walter Prime learns more about “himself” by conversing with Lois, ingesting knowledge and memories and smartly calling them back up when required.

Marjorie Prime
“Marjorie Prime”BB Film Productions

Marjorie and Walter’s grown daughter, Tess (Davis), isn’t a fan of Walter Prime; Marjorie is much nicer to him than she is to her own child. Even so, Tess recognizes the comfort and stimulation he provides to her. Meanwhile, Tess’ husband, Jon, is secretly feeding memories to Walter Prime, a move that initially seems kind and eventually turns needlessly cruel. As “Marjorie Prime” continues (and other primes stop by), that becomes the film’s primary problem: Performances are solid, but characters are so thinly written that they prove impossible to know.

While Marjorie is the most solid construction (and one Smith knows well, drawing out all of her shades with staggering skill), Jon and Tess are so foreign to the audience that even Robbins and Davis can’t quite crack them. Major plot points are baffling, if only because the characters remain so vague to us. Prime performances are purposely low key, but Hamm still breathes life into a role who’s literally made out of air.

READ MORE: ‘Marjorie Prime’ Exclusive Teaser: Lois Smith And Jon Hamm Star In New Sci-Fi Drama About Artificial Intelligence

Almost entirely set in Marjorie’s beach house, the film’s ripped-from-the-theater feel never abates. Composer Mica Levi’s work on features like “Under the Skin” and “Jackie” added unexpected layers to already rewarding works, but here it piles on unease and discomfort in ways that the rest of the film never fully reflects.

Harrison’s play was concerned with the limits and abilities of technology, but Almereyda seems much more preoccupied with the notions and possibilities of storytelling. Early in “Marjorie Prime,” Walter Prime tells Marjorie a story about a memorable night out at the movies when they were much younger, and while both Marjorie and the audience must take the story at face value, Marjorie throws in an alteration that will appear the next time Walter Prime tells the story. It’s not true, but it doesn’t matter; it’s the feeling that does, and “Marjorie Prime” feels less true at every turn.

Grade: C+

“Marjorie Prime” premiered in the Premieres section at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

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