The haunting and allusive “Marjorie Prime” is a sci-fi film set in the near future but its emotional resonance is bracingly immediate. Based on the 2014 play of the same name by Jordan Harrison, and written and directed by Michael Almereyda, it is, in the largest sense, a movie about memory.
We first meet Marjorie (Lois Smith), an 86-year old widow touched by dementia, as she speaks with Walter (Jon Hamm) in the comfort of her cozy beige beach house living room. She welcomes his presence but seems slightly uneasy. “I feel like I have to entertain,” she says to him, and it soon becomes clear that Walter is, in fact, a highly realistic hologram of her husband, who died 15 years earlier.
He has been selected to look like Walter at his best mid-40s handsomeness and was provided to Marjorie by her skeptical daughter Tess (Geena Davis), who thinks the whole idea is creepy, and her much more enthusiastic son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins), who recognizes Marjorie’s need for comforting companionship, however abstract.
Walter is a Prime, which means, as a hologram, he receives information about Marjorie from the bits of information filtered through their conversations, or from his background sessions with Jon, who attempts to fill in much of her past. The poignancy of the Marjorie-Walter interactions is that Marjorie both believes and disbelieves that this man, whose soothingness is slightly robotic, is her husband. Gestures or responses from him that don’t exactly evoke Walter are met by Marjorie with a befuddled agitation.
She is reminded by Walter of a romantic date watching “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” and she sweetens the memory by asking, “What if we went to see ‘Casablanca’ instead?” And so this becomes their new reminiscence, their new reality. What transpires between them in these sessions is like a fantasia of how we alter our memories to fit our desires. After a while, Walter, in his hesitancies and proclivity to please, seems as complexly human as anybody else in the movie.
Which is saying something, because all the principals in this extraordinarily well-acted film are intensely compelling. Jon, for example, who at first seems almost as unflappable as Walter, is eventually revealed to be a man whose woe is the better part of him. In discussing Marjorie’s past with Walter, Jon is careful to steer him clear of certain family tragedies he knows will only cause her pain, and we can see how he, too, is pained.
Tess, in a deep-down performance by Davis that is very likely her best, resents her mother’s relationship with Walter not only because she is dubious of its benefits, but also because she never enjoyed the closeness, even if it is a fabricated closeness, that they share.
With the Marjorie-Tess connection, Almereyda is perhaps drawing on the large backlog of fraught mother-daughter relationships that informed so many Ingmar Bergman films. (I’m thinking particularly of “Autumn Sonata,” in which the mother, played by Ingrid Bergman, was a pianist. Marjorie in this movie is a violinist.) In another scene in “Marjorie Prime,” this one involving a panoramic museum mural of Versailles, Almereyda invokes Alain Resnais’s mood-memory classic “Last Year at Marienbad.”
All of this has the potential to devolve into film-school artiness, but Almereyda, whose film work in the past includes an ingenious, avant-garde modernization of “Hamlet” starring Ethan Hawke, employs old movie references with such a resonant sense of inquiry that they create their own distinct disposition. He refashions old movie memories in the same troubling way that his characters do, and for the same reason: They provide a balm for our fears.
“Marjorie Prime,” which has a soulful score by Mica Levi, is essentially a chamber drama, and yet it rarely feels stifled or stagey. Almereyda doesn’t make the mistake of opening up the play. He realizes that the drama is all in the acting, in the interactions, not in windswept vistas or fancy camera moves. Smith, who is about the same age as Marjorie, played the role to great acclaim on the stage, but she doesn’t go the dull, tour de force route. We are drawn to her in the same way that Walter is. We want to know more about her.
Ultimately everyone in “Marjorie Prime” moves into an ethereal zone where mood and memory coalesce. Human or hologram, we all face the same abiding question: How do we want to be remembered? Grade: A- (This movie is not rated.)