Critic's Notebook: In 'Marjorie Prime,' Lois Smith Gets Her Greatest Screen Role
The veteran character actress, 87, gives an astonishingly layered and moving performance as human and holographic versions of the same woman in Michael Almereyda's chamber piece.
There is no "Lois Smith type." That's the crucial beauty of her half-century of category-defying work. As a performer she's not easily summed up, and neither are most of the characters she's brought to thrilling, unpredictable life. From '70s classic Five Easy Pieces to this year's Lady Bird, Smith inhabits her roles so fully — and yet without a hint of actorly affectation — that she can infuse the simplest gesture with deep feeling, making each instant spontaneous and ephemeral.
There's a paradox in the fact that Marjorie Prime, the film that has given this character actor arguably her greatest big-screen role, rests on the concept of replication. It's an elegiac chamber piece you might call the flip side of Blade Runner 2049, tackling similar themes — artificial intelligence and memory — but from a place of subdued intensity.
Smith plays two versions of the same woman: the fading Marjorie and then her brand-new holographic facsimile, or "prime." Created for her by playwright Jordan Harrison, the role is one that Smith originated onstage. But while Marjorie might have been second nature to her when she stepped before the cameras for Michael Almereyda, the lyricism and intimacy of his adaptation give Smith the room to ply her magic on the atomic level, drawing us in with each flicker of light in her eyes.
It's Marjorie's gaze that frames the movie, whose opening and closing scenes find her looking out at the gray Atlantic. At other times that gaze drifts inward: the flesh-and-blood Marjorie reaching for lost shards of memory, and the digital rendition building connections from the information she's fed.
Playing opposite Jon Hamm as the hologram of Marjorie's husband and Geena Davis and Tim Robbins as her daughter and son-in-law, Smith makes each interaction revelatory. The human Marjorie, whose grasp of reality teeters between elusive and acute, is by turns girlish and enervated, willful and confused. A quality that her daughter labels as being "good with men" is evident in a flirty exchange with her son-in-law. Her head tilted back playfully to look up at him, Marjorie is as present in the moment as she is uncertain of the year in which it takes place.
Yet the coquette in her is at a loss when she's face to face with Walter Prime, the computer-program model of her late husband in early middle age. Shuffling through shadows toward one of their first encounters, she confesses, "I feel like I have to perform around you." Smith navigates the story's layers of performance while never seeming to be performing herself, whether she's the Marjorie with frayed synapses or the one stringing together bytes into autobiography.
She grounds Marjorie in the physical world: dancing into the surf, smoking in the rain and turning a simple phrase, "French-Canadian," into a delicious joke. She grounds Marjorie Prime in the world of emotion: inquisitive, reassuring, compassionate. "Another kind of creature," she described her at a Q&A for the film. What's staggering about Smith's performance is that on each side of the human-tech divide she embodies something ghostly yet pulsing, and all of it is bracingly real.
And when Marjorie Prime, still working out a fraught relationship with her daughter, streams a favorite song of the younger woman's as a peace offering, what unfolds is one of the most piercing moments in movies this year. The Band's "I Shall Be Released" plays, and there's a charged alchemy between the plaintive falsetto of Richard Manuel's vocals and Davis' eloquent silence. But what sets the scene into soul-stirring motion is the way Smith's face brightens as she leans forward ever so slightly — the way Marjorie Prime watches the gift being received.