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Ex Machina

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Christine Fenzl

MOVIE REVIEW
I’m Your Man (2021)

The question is not whether you would if you could, because of course you would. The question is whether or not you should. Alma (Maren Eggert, who won the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlinale for her performance) is the only professor at her entire university in Berlin with neither a partner nor a family, which is why she has been compelled to participate in the project. There has been months of research and probing questions designed to reveal her deepest desires. And all that information has been run into the program that created Tom (Dan Stevens; yes, really), her perfect man.

Why yes, Tom is a robot, although an exceptionally advanced one. He has a charming backstory – an expert in Persian cuneiform, he tells everyone they meet at a conference in Copenhagen, where Alma is presenting some of her research on Sumerian cuneiform. He makes bad jokes and puns, until Alma tells him to stop. He even speaks with the accent of Alma’s choice – British, because she likes her men foreign, but not exotic. And he has to live with Alma for three weeks as the final stage of the ethical testing on whether such companions should be offered for sale.

And yes, he can. But Alma has to kiss him first.

Mr. Stevens has been working overtime to escape the shadow of “Downton Abbey,” and here he absolutely crushes it. Speaking aggravatingly fluent German (when he’s not speaking Spanish, French, or Korean – not a word of English), he manages to convey an otherworldly, flirtatious, hyper-attentive focus not seen on screen from a male actor since Jude Law popped up in “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” Tom is not an obvious machine like the one Peter Sarsgaard voiced in “Robot & Frank,” but neither is he a replicant – unlike the creatures of the “Blade Runner” universe, he’s always just that little bit off. You wouldn’t know it in passing unless you were looking for it, though. When Tom spends the first night at Alma’s reorganizing her entire place to be more quote-unquote efficient, she decides she’d better not leave him home alone all day. She gives him money to loiter in coffee shops. They go to the pub. And soon she brings him to the university with her, where the grad students assisting with her research go ahead and give him the tour. But Tom’s algorithm realizes something that none of the humans did, and that has consequences.

While Alma is single, she’s not alone – she has a sweet younger sister, Cora (Annika Meier) and an elderly, deteriorating father (Wolfgang Hübsch), who are fully aware of the project and Tom’s true nature. The scene around the photo albums, in which the family, including one of Cora's sons, switches between including Tom in the conversation as normal or discussing him as if he is not there, feels incredibly realistic. The dichotomy of knowing the person sitting on the sofa next to you is not a person at all must be bewildering, all the more so when the person is designed to meet your every desire. Ms. Eggert holds the whole movie together with her intelligence, human and emotional. In her late 40s, Alma has built a career on patient historical research which has become her whole life, for reasons that become clear, and even more triumphantly, without her skills being demeaned by anyone. Her routine purchases of donuts for her team make it clear how very good she is at denying her own appetites, although the arrival of Julian (Hans Löw), a colleague at the university, at her apartment one morning makes Tom wonder. And when things fall apart, Ms. Eggert does an expert job of showing the relief she feels even as the ground is kicked out from under her; for once, she can really allow herself to collapse, because she’s not on her own. Tom will catch her. It's what he was made for.

Director Maria Schrader, who co-adapted the screenplay with Jan Schomberg, knows how to let us figure things out for ourselves. The initial scenes in the nightclub, where Tom takes Alma dancing on their early dates, seem normal until you realize everyone is smoking indoors. Then Alma, and us, figures out most of the other clubbers are holograms, there to provide flavor as the observing scientists ensure Tom operates as intended. Benedict Neuenfels’s crisp cinematography lets the actors do the heavy lifting, although it’s a shame the scene in the meadow is so obviously C.G.I. (the issue which also marred the similar major scene in the equally hungrily romantic “Undine,” also set in Berlin). But unlike in “Undine,” Alma’s life unfolds to make space for Tom, and secrets come out. Because Tom has depths not entirely obvious from his design, and Alma is not a woman used to being surprised. Disappointed, certainly. But not surprised.

The surprises therein are based on a close understanding of human nature and the tireless question of whether that understanding of human nature can be expected from a machine. How can human weakness be understood and catered for within artificial intelligence, and should it be? And is any intelligence truly artificial when it is built by human hands and programmed by human minds? And what happens when the intelligence takes on a mind of its own? Tom is genuinely funny! How can you teach a machine the nuances of interpersonal dynamics necessary to crack a joke? When the machines are this advanced, are they really machines at all? “I’m Your Man” never loses sight of these questions, and the cleverness with which they are addressed – all the way to an excellent, non-cop-out ending – makes this one of the most touching movies in recent memory. Although, frankly, it’s worth it alone for the scene when a deeply upset, very drunk Alma throws a tantrum in Tom’s direction, and we can see the gears going over in his mind as he tries to handle her. Human kindness is so rare these days, it’s no surprise our desperation has us turning to the machines.

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