Film Review: Marjorie Prime

This handsomely wrought, smart sci-fi chamber piece is worth seeing, particularly for an unforgettable performance from the great Lois Smith.
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One of the highlights of the New York theatrical season of 2015 was Jordan Harrison's Pulitzer-nominated Marjorie Prime, which proposed a near future in which deceased loved ones could return to your life as holograms.

In Michael Almereyda's expansive screen adaptation, the infirm but still vibrant Marjorie (Lois Smith) must deal with her reactivated spouse Walter (in the strapping, handsome form of Jon Hamm) while also contending with her deeply resentful and suspicious daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and tech-crazy son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins).

On the stage, this all took place in a sterile, amorphous space, to chilling effect. Almereyda has moved the action to a posh Hamptons beach house, effectively using the endless, suggestive murmur of the ocean to emphasize a feeling of disconnection from space and time.

His other decisions may sharply divide viewers, as he has himself confessed to purposely removing much of Harrison's crisp, antic humor in favor of a deeper, more metaphysical thrust. He's opened the play up in other ways than its physical setting, as well, giving more demystifying explication than Harrison, further layering Jon's character and leaving the audience with fewer nagging questions about the nature of "primes," the term here for the holograms. The music also cues you in to what may be actually happening onscreen, be it the tasteful selections from Fauré and other classical composers, evocative of the violinist career Marjorie once enjoyed, or Mica Levi's subtly piercing original score. Photographed by Sean Price Williams in handsomely muted tones, this is one of the most visually elegant sci-fi films ever made.

Marjorie Prime’s greatest value, however, is in Smith’s performance. This most unpretentious 86-year-old journeyman of an actress has had an astonishingly long career, stretching from a lush-mouthed, dewy ingenue in East of Eden with James Dean to her current NY stage eminence, with recent peaks like Marjorie Prime and her universally lauded A Trip to Bountiful. In Almereyda’s adaptation of the former, it’s particularly fascinating the watch the graceful subtlety with which Smith adjusts her deeply funny, warm, sometimes childlike, sometimes sage performance from the stage to the medium of film. One can sense her uncanny, febrile awareness of the camera. It’s an unalloyed aesthetic joy to watch the histrionic economy with which she expresses exactly what she needs to.

Hamm is amusingly saturnine and sometimes maddeningly smug, especially when describing the night he proposed to Marjorie after a movie date to see My Best Friend's Wedding. ("Could we make it Casablanca, instead?," Marjorie beseeches him.) It's good to see the always likable Davis again. She admirably commits to the prickly, tear-stained role of Tess, although one wishes Almereyda had given her more light moments to show her ineffable radiance. Robbins delivers one of his best, most complex performances, caught as he is between two formidable women, a combined sea of combative estrogen that would probably drown any lesser man.

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