Technological anxieties concerning relationships with artificial beings really have had something of a stranglehold on the world of grounded, sci-fi dramas recently. Spike Jones’s Her, which concerned a lonely Joaquin Phoenix and his ill-fated intersection with a synthetic person voiced by a sultry Scarlet Johannsson, was the arguable originator of the trend. We could be intolerably pedantic and go as far back as the Greek Pygmalion myth but there is something distinctive about this contemporary crop. As we encroach on the possible realisation of life-sharing partnerships with artificial intelligence, we’ve seen a raft of works dealing with the difficult questions that reality would engender. Black Mirror’s ‘Be Right Back’, Marjorie Prime and Ex Machina all offer dystopian perspectives on humanity’s relationship with its most advanced creations.
Writer-director Maria Schrader (Unorthodox) takes a more nuanced approach with I’m Your Man. Her rather plausible and gently acerbic dramedy refuses to make a villain of either our human stand-in or her robotic partner here. Instead, Schrader looks at the messy complications that would arise for both parties. Her sympathies aren’t just with a humanity grappling with creating consciousness as an answer to loneliness but also with a consciousness built for a purpose it never asked for. The result is a melancholic comedy about the inefficiency of technological “progress” in solving all too human problems.
I’m Your Man begins with a cold open of sorts. We are in an oddly vintage bar, somewhere in Germany. A middle-aged woman is on a first date with a seemingly perfect male partner. Impossibly handsome, terribly erudite and just a little corny, the man appears to have all the right answers. At the same time, the woman is having none of it at every step of the way. We can’t place why, but something is off. The reason comes to the fore when the man appears to short circuit in the middle of the dance floor. He is an android and the woman’s reservations about such an endeavor appear to be well-founded.
That woman, Alma, is played with a playful honesty by Maren Eggert. A museum archaeologist, a suspicious Alma has been tasked with testing out the new model of synthetic life partners for a sleek corporate entity. She is given three weeks to make a final assessment on Tom, an AI prototype supposedly catered to her personality type and interests. Downton Abbey alum and apparent polyglot Dan Stevens is our German-speaking android here. His Tom is another successful addition to a compellingly diverse filmography that seems hellbent on avoiding traditional leading-man status.
Stevens is sometimes initially like something out of a weak B-plot in a tired, long-running sitcom, with all the typically robotic mannerisms and “encyclopedia-brain” jokes one might expect. At first, Tom’s overzealous and somewhat cloying behavior is an irritant to both Alma and the audience alike but this is a deliberate choice on the part of Schrader. His unsuccessful ability to respond to Alma’s social cues early on is really the result of him being a sort of fledgling robot. The more he learns, the stronger his ability to bond with Alma, raising difficult questions of what constitutes ‘authentic’ human behaviour when performed by non-humans.
Existential headaches or not, this is nonetheless a pretty successful comedy. Our leads really do have a genuine chemistry and are probably one of the stronger romantic pairings in recent cinematic history. There are elements of screwball here, but Schrader is playing with the tropes to comment on some of the antiquated gender dynamics of both the genre as well as of modern technology. At one stage, Tom tries to woo Alma with a rose petal-laden bath as according to his data “93% of women dream of this” but of course Alma is part of 7% who do not. The dodgy pigeon-holing of people into groups by an algorithmic analysis seems to be in Schrader’s crosshairs here.
Schrader was wise enough to give us a very “human” human being in Alma, a perfectly pitched protagonist. Unlike say Joaquin Phoenix in Her or Domhnall Gleeson in Ex Machina, Alma is no sad-sack loser. A successful academic who keeps others at a distance following a personal tragedy, she is certainly alone, but not necessarily lonely. Truth be told, I’m Your Man’s sci-fi sensibilities are muted, and would be virtually non-existent if not for the presence of Tom.
Alma has a realness rarely seen in science fiction. Think Annie Hall with a PHD and added a teaspoon of cynicism. Eggert gives her an edge and a jaded astuteness that the actress can often get across with little more than a raised eyebrow. Her believability as the slightly misanthropic aunt we might all know is crucial for the audience believing her when she lets her guard down with Tom.
Tom too isn’t just some device for Alma’s growth but thankfully fleshed out, with his growing realisations at the unfulfilled purpose assigned to him resulting in a touching emotional denouement. Stevens cleverly adds noticeable subtleties to his performance throughout to show the growing influence of human interaction on his android. It’s not all smooth sailing. The premise feels like it’s stretched within an inch of its life by the time the credits roll. Alma’s intermittent voiceover, especially in a later scene, can also be guilty of explaining what could perhaps be best left to the audience to interpret themselves. Schrader has nonetheless though provided us with a fresh take on a now established sub-genre.
Alma and Tom’s relationship is certainly thought-provoking. Is Tom actually improving his empathetic skills or simply just modifying his behaviour based on the ‘data’ he is receiving from the partner assigned to him. If it’s the latter, does that even make it less real? The choice is simple, yet complex. It’s between a lonely existence or to be like the sculptor Pygmalion himself, and fall in love with his own lifelike creation.