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'Marjorie Prime': A not-too-distant future haunted by an unnervingly recent past

By: Ann Hornaday The Washington Post
September 7, 2017 Updated: September 7, 2017 at 4:10 am
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Jon Hamm and Lois Smith in "Marjorie Prime." MUST CREDIT: FilmRise

Starring Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Tim Robbins, Lois Smith; directed by Michael Almereyda; 98 minutes; unrated, contains very brief nudity and smoking.

In "Marjorie Prime," Lois Smith plays Marjorie Lancaster, a woman suffering dementia after her husband's death. Still living in the couple's attractive seaside home - with daughter Tess and son-in-law Jon (Geena Davis and Tim Robbins) - Marjorie avails herself of all interventions at her disposal: medication, an occasional cigarette with her nurse, and conversations with the departed Walter, whom she remembers as a much younger man.

Because "Marjorie Prime" takes place in the not-too-distant future, Walter isn't just in her imagination: He's a hologram - played by Jon Hamm with spot-on ethereality - continually upgraded by the stories, anecdotes and snippets fed to him by Marjorie, Tess and Jon. As the drama assumes its nuanced shape, the question isn't how real Walter is, but how memories are elicited, edited and erased.

Adapted by writer-director Michael Almereyda from Jordan Harrison's play, "Marjorie Prime" has the sleek lines of similarly themed recent films, notably "Her" and "Ex Machina." As in those speculative but eerily believable fictions, the futurism here is understated. Rather than get caught up with gizmos and gee-whiz effects, Almereyda sets the narrative amid familiar blond wood, Scandinavian mid-20th-century furniture and other trappings of taste and restraint.

Shot in serene, silvery tones by Sean Price Williams, "Marjorie Prime" lulls the viewer into the title character's increasing sense of reassurance when the story takes surprising turns and its core concerns - memory, construction of identity and character, and the profound inscrutability of the Other - come into deeply affecting focus.

With a breakout performance by Smith - who played Marjorie in the 2014 Los Angeles stage production and a New York version the next year - "Marjorie Prime" receives a shot of humor from Robbins, who imbues Jon with mordant, borderline angry wit. Davis' turn as an unhappy adult feels more stiff, but as the unspoken mysteries of the family are revealed, her reticence turns out to be a judicious choice.

"Marjorie Prime" is about our relationship with time, especially the fractured way we reconstruct the past. This muted meditation offers intriguing insights into the illusions we create in the name of seeing ourselves and one another more clearly.

The composer Mica Levi - who created the slashing string-infused soundscape for "Jackie" last year - here delivers another score bristling with impending drama. And "Marjorie Prime" doesn't disappoint, with some mysteries being solved and others remaining tantalizingly elusive.

As a sly chamber piece, it reassures and unsettles. For an hour or two, it's possible to believe not only that the days of future past soon will be within reach, but also that they won't even be past.

Ann Hornaday,

The Washington Post

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