Imagine that, a film called I’m Your Man and no sign of Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack. Or Wham! Partly that’s because this is a German film (originally called Ich bin dein Mensch) but mostly it’s because this funny and clever movie wants to do things its own way. How about a romcom plot involving C-3PO, for instance, to put it in elevator-pitch terms.
Of course that’s not who Dan Stevens is playing but there’s more than a hint of the prissy Star Wars robot in Stevens’s portrayal of an AI-juiced man-machine designed expressly to be everything Alma, a university researcher, could want in a partner. As for Alma (Maren Eggert), she’s signed up to an experimental program and is now landed for three weeks with a robot she almost instantly regrets having agreed to road-test.
This being a romcom, the initial hostility is all a plot ruse, and Alma and Tom, as the robot is called, will eventually fall in love, as sure as algorithms is algorithms, though there will be many bugs and much buffering on the way.
It’s all about the journey rather than the destination, as romcoms are. And co-writer/director Maria Schrader makes it a good one, full of observational humour and poignant moments. Schrader you might know from Deutschland 83, 86 and 89, where she played the formidable spy Lenora Rauch (a kind of East German Rosa Klebb), but she also directed Unorthodox, the TV series about an Orthodox Jewish woman fleeing her arranged marriage. It was one of Netflix’s major successes of 2020, so Schrader knows how to do it.
Stevens speaks German throughout, the slight English accent explained as all part of Tom’s programmers’ plan. Alma likes her men foreign but not too exotic, he informs her, Tom’s supercilious know-all attitude just one of the many reasons Alma isn’t instantly smitten. Tom is also courteous, tidy, helpful and, behind the smooth facade, formidable at stuff like long division – not exactly the sort of personality that inevitably elicits the “take me, ravish me” response in a woman. Another obstacle to be overcome.
There’s an examination of the loneliness of the long-distance career woman in I’m Your Man too, and a consideration of the meaning of consciousness. Sort of – at what point does Tom’s faking of human emotion become second nature and so indistinguishable from the real thing? Can his feelings really be hurt?
Robot & Frank also gave a prominent role to a clever machine, and also considered the idea that robots might actually be better than humans in key respects. Here, Tom is a quick learner and, as Alma gradually introduces him to her social circle – including work colleagues and, eventually, her ex, Julian – he passes all the tests; noticeably, it’s Alma who doesn’t.
The tests keep coming and the emotional bombs keep landing. This is a very skilfully written and paced script in the classic Hollywood manner. It’s also an expertly crafted film in all departments, from the just-right acting of Eggert (much human frailty) and Stevens (a shred of warmth in his micro-inflected deadpan) to the soundtrack of Tobias Wagner that catches all the mood changes, from initially whimsical to ultimately wistful.
Supporting roles also do what supporting roles are meant to, in a Hollywood screwball-y kind of way. Sandra Hüller as a wonk from the robot company, Hans Löw as the ex, Julian, a man who might have moved on to the next woman too quickly, are both excellent as fingernail sketch characters who don’t swamp the main event.
Yeh, but do Alma and Tom have sex? Are there port interface issues? You’ll have to watch and see.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021