In Marjorie Prime, Michael Almereyda’s pensive, intimate new drama, death is not quite the end: It’s an opportunity. The movie, set in a recognizably near future, is about a dying 86-year-old woman named Marjorie (Lois Smith) who gets to spend her last days in the company of her already-deceased husband, Walter, basking in old memories and, in some cases, coming up with new ones to replace them. Walter is a quick learner. Was it My Best Friend’s Wedding they watched the night he proposed, or Casablanca? In some ways, that’s up to Marjorie. She can feed him stories and call them memories, or change her mind, or simply forget—something she’s prone to do, lately, thanks to an illness which, though unnamed, has more than its share in common with Alzheimer’s disease. No matter. When the memory changes, or Marjorie tells him something he doesn’t know, Walter simply thanks her and says: “I’ll remember that.” Of course he will. He’s designed to. But will she?
Walter, played by Jon Hamm, isn’t a person or a memory but, instead, a program. He’s a holographic reincarnation who knows 32 languages and learns to become more human by interacting with humans. He’s a digital reboot—but he’s tailored, specifically, to Marjorie. Though she lives with and is looked after by her daughter Tess (Geena Davis), with whom she has a difficult relationship, and her son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins), the Walter who quickly pixelates into existence on their couch every day is someone Tess and Jon aren’t old enough to remember. He’s the Walter who Marjorie knew when she was the younger woman being courted, and eventually proposed to, by an older man—the Walter she knew before that courtship became a failure of a marriage. Tess, still anxious over the idea of a Prime, still a little weirded out when she walks into a room and he’s just sitting there, thinks it’s all condescending, like her mother is a baby who needs easy pacification. “It’s better than television,” Jon says, adding: “What’s wrong with being pacified?”
Tess learns the answer to that question soon enough, when Marjorie dies and she’s given a holographic memory chamber of her own: Marjorie Prime. That’s when Almereyda’s meditatively mounted movie, which is based on the play written by Jordan Harrison, starts to reveal just how far its questions are willing to reach. (Smith starred in the play’s 2014 and 2015 productions in Los Angeles and New York, respectively.) It’s with no small irony, for example, that the Primes learn and improve as the people they’re designed for get steadily worse. Marjorie herself says as much to Walter before she dies, complaining, “You said I’d get better, but you’re the one getting better.” It’s clear, too, that above all, interacting with Prime resembles the slow churn of psychoanalysis, dredging up all the old wounds which, you realize, are just as much a component of who we are as the pleasant memories we’d sooner hope to remember.
There’s a lot of pain in Marjorie Prime. The death of Marjorie and Walter’s first child when Tess was only 6 and the vast emotional chasms this has opened up between Marjorie and Tess for much of their lives, for example, are but two of the painful bits of the past the movie reckons with. This all reveals itself slowly, deliberately, during the course of family conversations with each other and the Primes, as the central quartet of characters spend the movie’s hour and 38 minutes slowly tossing it all over. Really, it’s almost too much pain, or at least too much at the exclusion of everything else. At its best, Almereyda’s movie, which is set in a house on the beach and filled to the brim with images of light and water, comes off as a thoughtful study—not only of memory, but of the language we use to describe those memories, to bind them to ourselves and others.
Language is a key player here, which may just be a diplomatic way of saying that the film, for its merits, never quite escapes its past life as a play. It suffers the classic problem of many stage-to-screen adaptations, in which an abundance of language occludes the possibility of much action. Almereyda, perhaps most famous for his Ethan Hawke–led film adaptation of Hamlet, never quite finds a way to translate that language into images. What the film intends to feel like emotional revelations more often come off as a series of preplanned declarations, like they're check marks on a screenwriter’s to-do list.
The movie has a good pedigree, however, and it somewhat pays off. Mica Levi, a rising star in the world of movie music after writing the memorably beguiling scores for Under the Skin and Jackie, offers up more of her dense, shimmering music, sometimes to the detriment of Almereyda’s sensitive but understated direction. The acting is strong, too, particularly from Smith and Robbins, who both perform their characters’ grief as a stilted kindness. Davis, who’s in too few movies, is good too, though she’s more notably a sight for sore eyes than a key player in the drama. Hamm, meanwhile, seems a little lost; he’s better playing it loose, sloppy, and a bit off the cuff than he is in a movie like this, where he has to play the respectful digitized copy of someone’s dead husband. He’s good, but the material is a little out of his league—and out of the movie’s league, really. Marjorie Prime works better as a premise, and likely as a play, than as a movie—but what a premise. It’s worth seeing for the questions it raises; yet, like the pasts it dredges up, the memory of the movie may beat the real thing.