Ostensibly a romantic comedy about android love, this subversively heartbreaking German feature, written (with Jan Schomburg, based on a published short story) and directed by Maria Schrader, makes too much sense for a tale that, while remaining stubbornly cerebral to the end, is entirely speculative. It also remains consistently funny until its mid-point, when the ramifications of creating happiness inorganically overwhelms the lighter aspects of the plot. The opening scene is a corker: Archaeologist Alma (Maren Eggert) goes to a singles bar where she is formally introduced to Tom (Dan Stevens), a handsome, agreeable man whose flawless German has a slight British accent. He seems to already know Alma, though they’ve never met, and Alma becomes suspicious, not of his intentions but rather of his very being and starts plying him with ridiculously difficult mathematical problems that he solves with fluent ease. However, when he asks Alma to dance he starts repeating himself aimlessly: a glitch, because Tom is an android.
Alma knew this from the beginning and only agreed to meet Tom as a condition for receiving funding for her program to investigate cunieforms in the U.S. Her supervisor at the museum where she works, Roger (Failou Seck), is working on the android program that Tom is the product of, and needs a single woman to test Tom’s romantic capabilities. The requirement is that Alma spend the next three weeks with Tom. Only then will she get the money for her research. The setup is patently ludicrous, but within the context of the android-boyfriend dynamic, it opens up all sorts of possibilities that Schrader exploits to the max. The rub is that Alma is not that young and her romantic history is mostly taken up by one man, a fellow archaeologist named Julian, with whom she broke up only recently and who is now about to marry someone else. Later, it is revealed that Alma and Julian’s relationship was fraught with tragedy, which affected Alma much more than Julian. Tom’s programming and, by extension, his algorithms are specifically attuned to Alma’s biography and psychological profile, circumstances that form the basis for much of the comedy. The genius of this conception is that Tom’s AI immediately adjusts to changes in Alma’s mood and outlook, and he corrects himself in order to adapt to what he “thinks” pleases her, but, of course, Alma, understanding always that he is a “robot” (a term that seems to offend Tom), also understands these adjustments. (As a side note, Stevens’ German dialogue sounds post-dubbed, though it also sounds like his actual voice, and this slightly meta detail adds greatly to Tom’s credibility as a sympathetic machine.)
But halfway through, the emotional weight of Alma’s personal tribulations overwhelms her steely, anlytical resolve. Compounding her inner rage at Julian’s smooth ability to move on, she has to address her father’s encroaching dementia and a serious functional matter that may upend her research, which, after all, is the whole reason for her agreeing to be with Tom, who “comprehends” exactly what is going on but cannot approach these problems organically. Ironically, this inability to “cope” makes him more endearing to Alma, who eventually looks upon him not only as the kind of friend she needs (based, perhaps, on a childhood friend also named Tom that may have been imaginary) but also a sex partner.
Thoughout the film, even as it turns melancholy and slightly predictable, Schrader maintains a strictly utilitarian structure that never shortchanges the characters, no matter how peripheral they are to the story. Even when the nameless woman in charge of facilitating the android project turns out to be an android herself, she retains her individuality as a character. It’s just that she’s not a human being any more, and for some reason, you don’t feel there’s anything strange about that.
In German and English. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264).
I’m Your Man home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2021 Letterbox Filmproduktion, Sudwestrundfunk