I’m Your Man

Dan Stevens and Maren Eggert dance

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.

Tom and his handler
Tom arrives with his handler



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









The Rental

Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Dan Stevens and Jeremy Allen White

Take your pick – The Rental is a deliberately confounding amalgam of genres or a film that can’t work out what it wants to be.

It starts out looking like one of those cabin in the woods things, and we meet two couples – Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Michelle (Alison Brie), Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and Mina (Sheila Vand) – as they’re arriving at a secluded and fabulous place by the coast, complete with ocean view and hot tub.

They also have a dog in tow, which the rules of the rental explicitly forbid. But they’re entitled “white privilege” kind of guys and so those rules don’t apply. Actually, one of them, Mina, isn’t white (Vand’s parents are Iranian) and has a bone to pick with the owner of the cabin, since she had tried to book exactly the same place a bit earlier, only to be told that it wasn’t available.

Was this out and out racism? She has it out with the owner’s brother, Taylor (Toby Huss) whose “just who do you think you are, talking to me like that?” attitude suggests Mina has got it in one.

So that’s where we are, I thought. But no. It turns out that two members of this foursome – business partners Charlie and Mina – have a secret and strictly non-business thing going on with each other, one that they decide to consummate in the shower room after a day of bracing sea air, booze and drugs has loosened their resolve absolutely not to go there.

Mina and Charlie find something
Hang on, what do we have here?



So that’s where we are, I thought again. Not race but clandestine relationships. And then Charlie and Mina stumble on something that they should really report to the police, but don’t because it would expose their affair.

More plot details will not be forthcoming, but The Rental runs quickly through a series of familiar scenarios – after the creepy house and the wrong relationship come a modern-day peeping tom revelation and a body to dispose of, before things even get properly going – switching between genres in a way that should be fun but isn’t.

The script is partly to blame. It’s written by first-time feature director Dave (brother of James) Franco and Joe Swanberg, and seems keener on catching the audience off guard than entertaining it – between gotchas, the dialogue in this film is flat, the characters are dull.

It took me three goes to watch it. The second time I turned off after ten minutes. Even so, it does manage some moments of tension, while simultaneously being boring, an outcome I can’t quite explain. Maybe it’s the cast, who are all excellent, from key players to creepy sidemen like Huss. Its looks are also crisply fantastic, thanks to the lensing by Christian Sprenger (who’s a lot better than his gun-for-hire CV suggests). It’s also got a great genre-tickling soundtrack, courtesy of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, the composing partnership who are generally kept busy with TV work (on Fear the Walking Dead, for instance).

By the time it declares itself, with a big ta-daa, it’s too late. Oh, it’s that sort of film, you might mutter, if you can be bothered bestirring yourself.

There is a slight mystery here. Anything with Joe Swanberg involved in it should be at least interesting. Sean Durkin, director of Martha Marcy May Marlene and last year’s excellent The Nest, is also an executive producer here, and that only amplifies expectations. They’re disappointed by the finished product, which limps to the 90 minute mark as if trying to satisfy a contractual obligation.





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© Steve Morrissey 2021









Blithe Spirit

Leslie Mann, Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher, Judi Dench

 

“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert,” run the lines in Shelley’s poem To a Skylark. And though there’s plenty of spirit in 2020’s remake of a 1945 film often considered a classic, this bird resolutely fails to take wing.

The basic plot remains the same as the original film (and original play): Charles and Ruth Condomine are a rich couple living in elegant boredom out in the English countryside. He’s a writer struggling with his latest novel. So he gets in a bogus spiritualist, Madame Arcati, to conduct a seance, which waggish Charles will use as background material in his book.

The seance goes oddly right, or wrong. When Madame Arcati asks “Is there anybody there?” a spirit actually appears from the afterlife. It is Charles’s first wife Elvira. And she refuses to go back to wherever she came from. And that’s it: the rest of the film is taken up with much farcical to-ing and fro-ing and a lot of friction between Charles and the two Mrs Condomines, one of which only he can see.

Arch wit of a veddy Noel Coward sort was the prevailing tone of the 1945 original. That’s been replaced by kitsch, reflected in the different takes on the character of Madame Arcati. This one is a fraud and knows it. In the original everyone concerned thought Madame Arcati was bogus but she herself was entirely in earnest about her gift, her calling.

Noel Coward’s original play remains largely intact in the central section set in the Condomines’ elegant house, but early and late scenes try to filmify things a bit – we first meet Madame Arcati at a disastrous West End performance, and towards the end the action shifts to Hollywood, where Charles’s novel is being turned into a movie starring Greta Garbo and Clark Gable. The name Cecil B DeMille is also mentioned.

It’s a brave departure, but the changes up front mean junking some of the best writing in the original – the rapier repartee of Charles and Ruth in the opening moments of the 1945 original film. The later additions are just creative noodling.

Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens plays Charles. Obviously Stevens has done things other than Downton, but it’s an apt descriptor here because there’s more than a touch of Downton in the upstairs/downstairs gentility (Coward’s fault) and the TV-ish visuals (not Coward’s fault). Director Edward Hall is a Downton alum.

 

Madame Arcati conducts the seance
“Is there anybody there?”

 

Judi Dench as Madame Arcati realises wisely that she can’t match the scattergun brilliance of Margaret Rutherford’s gangnam physicality and instead relies on vocal inflection for laughs. Sadly, Rutherford did that too. Dench, always brilliantly herself, is able to squeeze comedy out of lines that are not intentionally funny, but even so, glimpsing Rutherford in the rearview mirror, Dench occasionally tips a hat (throws in the towel?) with line readings echoing the turkey gobble of the old Dame.

Isla Fisher is miscast as the second, very-much-alive Mrs C, her Aussie accent breaking through all over the place. She’s also badly served by a screenplay that’s made one real improvement on the original, which had a misogynistic streak a mile wide (two silly women fighting over Rex Harrison’s noble Charles, an obvious shit).

Leslie Mann reaps the rewards of the de-misogynifying (is that even a word?) – the first Mrs C turns out to be a smart operator who had a lot more to do with Charles’s success than he’s ever let on.

On the whole, though, the plot tweaks and the filmic locations at beginning and end don’t add much, and leech away much of the original film’s screwball energy.

No one comes out of it bathed in glory. Mann does best, Dench is acceptable, Stevens makes a fine cad but lacks Rex Harrison’s balancing charm, Fisher is a mistake.

The amazing white modernist house the Condomines live in was built in 1932 and is called Joldwynds. It’s the real deal. It also featured in an episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot once, and that’s about where this version of Blithe Spirit sits, as a good-looking, for the most part nicely made and solid piece of construction.

 

 

 

 

The original 1945 Blithe Spirit (restored)  – Watch it/buy it on Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021