Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Movie Review (TIFF 2021): Charming and Thoughtful ‘I’m Your Man’ Breaks New Ground for Rom-Coms


Director: Maria Schrader
Writers: Maria Schrader, Jan Schomburg, Emma Braslavsky
Stars: Maren Eggert, Dan Evans

Synopsis: A scientist agrees to participate in an experiment by living for three weeks with a robot who is created to be her perfect romantic partner.

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We may not be around for it, but all signs point to a future where artificial intelligence will be able to fully replicate human thought and behavior. It’s only a matter of time. Robots are becoming more and more prevalent, and computers already are integrated into our lives (hi, Alexa), so it’s not such a large leap to someday have some sort of human-appearing replicant that is able to mimic or even replace us. Such a concept has been a plot device in Hollywood for decades already, with human-like robots who can act and think like us being the subject of drama in everything from Star Trek: The Next Generation and AI: Artificial Intelligence to Alien, Blade Runner, Westworld and Ex Machina, just to name a few. In most Hollywood portrayals of humanistic robots, there is something threatening just below the surface, or something goes horribly wrong and the evil androids must be destroyed. It is a natural human instinct to assume that human thought and behavior cannot be fully replicated in artificial intelligence and that only bad can come of it when we try.

Which is why the new film I’m Your Man, by writer-director Maria Schrader, is all the more fascinating. Set in modern-day Berlin (in German with English subtitles), I’m Your Man has renowned scientist Alma, played by Maren Eggert, agree to be an evaluator for a new science experiment her colleagues have developed. They have developed a human replicant—a robot who looks exactly like a human—who is programmed with one assignment, to make Alma happy. They ask her to live with the robot for three weeks to see how realistic and viable the robot actually is. It has been programmed with millions of bits of information, not only to teach it how to react and behave like a real person but to specifically be Alma’s perfect match. The researchers have mined information from Alma’s entire life, and have created what they believe Alma’s dream man would look and act like. A natural skeptic, Alma is hesitant to be a part of the program, but, being a scientist herself—and single—she agrees to take “Tom” for a three-week test run and provide feedback.

It feels we’ve seen this before, and we have, most recently in Spike Jonze’s Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his digital personal assistant, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and in Blade Runner 2049, where Ryan Gosling (who’s also a replicant, ironically), falls for a hologram in the form of Ana de Armas. The difference here is that Schrader has upped the ante by making Tom (Dan Stevens) a real-looking, breathing, covered with real skin humanoid creature, who can actually pass for a real person. But the effect is still the same: Tom is programmed to make Alma happy, to be everything she wants in a man, to never upset her, and to fulfill her every fantasy. It also doesn’t hurt that Tom is beautiful.

But, for Alma, there’s something just not right. A scientist and a skeptic, Alma initially resists Tom’s charms, believing that mimicking speech and behavior is one thing, but artificially recreating a human’s capacity for thought, emotion and reason is impossible. And how can you have love without emotion? And with that, Schrader and her co-writer Jan Schomburg (based on a short story by Emma Braslavsky) set up a truly unique and intriguing romantic comedy that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

The hardest thing to do while watching I’m Your Man is to let go of the natural human assumption that something bad is going to happen. I mean, how can living with a robot NOT go south? There has to be some point of failure, right? If not, then we are accepting the hypothesis that it IS possible to replicate humans and that, in the end, we are replaceable. And that is a dangerous thing to accept, both on a personal level and a global one. But I’m Your Man chooses to follow its own path, by confronting those inner humanistic tendencies head on, by having Alma be the voice of reason, and to give us a story about a woman who is conflicted between her head and her heart, her reason and her emotions, her humanity and her hope.

The philosophizing is significant in I’m Your Man, and truly meaningful, but Schrader is able to give us a lesson in ethical conundrums in the most enjoyable and entertaining way possible. It starts with two central performances that are complex, layered and deceptively funny. Eggert, who won the top acting prize for this performance at the Berlin Film Festival, is believable and endearing as a woman truly conflicted, resistant to give in to her emotional vulnerability, which she perceives as a weakness. And as for Stevens, the British actor who won the hearts of millions on Downton Abbey and won even more with his outrageously extravagant performance in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga last year, it’s not enough that he shows off his fluency in German in I’m Your Man, but he plays robot Tom with the perfect combination of warmth and delicate diffidence, walking that ultra-fine line between being believable as both a human and a robot. It’s impossible to not fall in love with him, and that’s exactly the point.

While the premise is decidedly simple, I’m Your Man finds a real depth in its honest and thoughtful approach to a concept that has been approached many times in popular culture before, but never handled quite this sensitively, or this humanely—and without being overly sentimental. The humor in the script is perfect, the performances are delightful and moving, but, mostly, what makes I’m Your Man such a fulfilling experience is its decision to track its own course, tell its own story, and play to both the heart and the head in equal proportion.

Grade: A

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