- Courtesy Of Mongrel Media
- SEX MACHINE Eggert plays a scientist testing out a robot boyfriend in Schrader's thought-provoking comedy.
This week, in honor of the Tech Issue, I reviewed a film from Germany that asks that time-honored question: What if Mr. Right were actually an algorithm in a robotic body?
Directed and cowritten by Maria Schrader (Love Life), I'm Your Man was a nominee for the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival's Golden Bear award. As of press time, it's playing at Montpelier's Savoy Theater and Merrill's Roxy Cinemas in Burlington, and it's rentable on various streaming platforms.
Archaeologist Alma (Maren Eggert) isn't looking for love. She's happy to spend long hours at the museum with her research team. But for some reason (it's never quite clear), Alma's boss makes her research funding contingent on her willingness to serve as a tester for a new line of humanoid robots that are designed to be perfect romantic partners. For three weeks, she must live with Tom (Dan Stevens), an attractive machine who has been programmed to satisfy her every desire.
Well, sort of — much of Tom's romantic programming is actually boilerplate based on demographic generalizations. Alma rolls her eyes when he makes her a Champagne brunch or fills her bathtub with rose petals. None of that feels as real as what she shared with her ex (Hans Löw).
As Alma spends more time with Tom, though, she finds herself enjoying and even needing his company. Is this love? Friendship? Or has his algorithm simply decoded her at last?
Will you like it?
Stories of robot romance predate the digital era. Arguably, the very first one was the Pygmalion legend, in which a sculptor falls for the statue he created. And most such stories have the same moral: Be careful what you wish for. Their protagonists learn that an inhuman lover who seems too perfect might not be the best partner for the long haul.
So why does I'm Your Man play out differently, with Alma initially rejecting Tom and then warming to him? Well, it's 2021. While robots mistakable for handsome men still do not exist (sadly), most of us have ample experience interacting with algorithms that are hell-bent on decoding our psyches to fulfill their corporate imperatives. We know they're not always good at it — until sometimes, without warning, they are. We roll our eyes at targeted advertising only to find ourselves growing emotionally dependent on likes and shares. Who's the robot now?
Stevens is eerily perfect as the embodiment of an artificial intelligence's struggle to get under our skin. On Tom's first date with Alma, his "romantic" behavior is intrusive, even creepy; we can see why she's reluctant to take him home. But as he observes her at her best, her worst and everything in between, we can practically see the rapid calculations happening behind his eyes. By the time he's done, he knows what she needs better than she does herself.
Eggert's naturalistic performance is the perfect foil for Stevens' slickness. With her perpetually worried face, Alma seems like a woman who gave up a long time ago on experiencing any form of bliss. But deep down, she has a tender heart, and Tom is determined to unlock it.
Basically a series of conversations, I'm Your Man plays much more like a witty two-character stage drama than it does like a cinematic romantic comedy. The jokes are deadpan verbal barbs rather than laugh-out-loud pratfalls. Tobias Wagner's whimsical score feels out of place. And the ending ... well, whether it's happy or not is perhaps the movie's central question.
Schrader doesn't create a pervasive mood the way Spike Jonze did in Her, but I'm Your Man raises similar questions about whether we're watching a true dialogue or a monologue. If Tom's sole purpose is to mirror Alma's secret cravings back to her, is she still alone when she's with him? Or is he a new class of being with whom it's still possible to make an authentic connection?
We rarely see Tom without Alma. But in one tantalizing scene, left to his own devices, he orders a very specific coffee drink and then asks the barista, with a twinkle in his eye, whether she could have guessed that he lacks the capacity to want anything. Wanting, it seems, separates the human from the inhuman. If AIs ever learn to enjoy impersonating us, we could all be in big trouble.
If you like this, try...
Making Mr. Right (1987; PlutoTV): Way back before the World Wide Web, this rom-com from director Susan Seidelman made the radical proposition that an AI might have the edge over a human partner. John Malkovich plays a scientist who has created a robot in his own image. PR flack Ann Magnuson falls for the machine, who has a naïve charm his creator lacks.
Her (2013; Sundance Now, rentable): Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely urbanite who falls in love with his virtual assistant (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) in Jonze's meditation on what it means to connect.
"Humans" (three seasons, 2015-18; Amazon Prime Video, Hoopla, rentable): Robots may make good lovers, but all kinds of thorny ethical issues emerge when they develop consciousness. That's what happens in this British sci-fi series, in which people can buy humanoid machines to use as maids, companions, sex workers and more. HBO's "Westworld" explores a similar premise.