Producer: Lisa Blumenberg Director: Maria Schrader Screenplay: Jan Schomburg and Maria Schrader Cast: Maren Eggert, Dan Stevens, Sandra Hüller, Hans Löw, Wolfgang Hübsch, Annika Meier, Falilou Seck, Jürgen Tarrach and Henriette Richter-Röhl Distributor: Bleecker Street
Tales based on the advancements in AI technology that make lifelike androids a credible possibility are hardly a rarity anymore, but Maria Schrader’s, adapted from a short story by Emma Braslavsky, proves a disarmingly ingratiating take on what’s in danger of becoming a shopworn premise.
Alma Felser (Maren Eggert) is a scholar at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, researching Sumerian cuneiform tablets; her work aims to detect poetic elements in what are normally considered dry legal and financial texts. At the request of her boss Dean Roger (Falilou Seck), she’s reluctantly agreed to participate in a study being conducted by the Terrareca Corporation about their android project. Along among the staff, she’s definitely single, just having broken up with her latest boyfriend Julian (Hans Löw), a museum colleague, and childless, and the company is dangling a contribution to the museum an incentive.
Per the company protocol, she’ll be assigned a prototype of the Terrareca “companion” droid, Tom (Dan Stevens), who is programmed to adapt to her needs and preferences by adjusting his actions and reactions as a result of her responses and thus become her “perfect” soul-mate, even if he, strictly speaking, has no soul. A company representative (Sandra Hüller) introduces them at a bustling club filled with happy couples to enhance the romantic ambience, though most of the people there are actually holograms (cheaper than androids, explains the rep, who will drop in on them periodically over the course of their three weeks together to check on their progress, and at the conclusion of the test Alma will write a report on whether she thinks the program is viable, or desirable.
From there “I’m Your Man” becomes a sort of sci-fi romantic comedy about the woman who tries to resist the charms of the man who’s in effect wooing her, though in this case the man is a robot and the woman a rationalist who questions the very idea of a program aimed at creating perfect companions for lonely people.
Yet she has psychological wounds that are clearly raw. She seems to have very few friends apart from her colleagues at work and Jules, who is still removing things from her apartment even as he’s taken on a new partner (who is already pregnant). Over the course of the weeks they spend together, Tom will correctly diagnose her longing for the romantic recollections of her youth, and the emptiness she feels at not having children. He’ll also watch her desperate efforts to deal with her widowed father (Wolfgang Hübsch), who’s descending into dementia more and more every passing day.
And to add to her personal problems, in educating himself about her field of study in order to connect with her about her work, Tom comes upon an article already in print that makes the argument her planned publication was meant to break new ground with. As any academic will tell you, that’s the sort of professionally devastating news guaranteed to send one into emotional tailspin, and it has that effect on Alma.
All of these are serious matters, and Schrader’s film doesn’t ignore them; but it would be a mistake to think of it as heavily dramatic. All of them are integrated cannily into the overarching rom-com push-and-pull to make for a film that balances the sweet and the not-so-sweet, humor and insight. And it doesn’t opt for a simplistically crowd-pleasing conclusion.
It’s the witty, knowing script by Schrader and Jan Schomburg that anchors “I’m Your Man,” but it’s the two brilliant lead performances that make the concept work. Eggert encompasses Alma’s many moods, from her professional intensity to her suppressed longing for emotional support, without becoming irritating at either extreme. And Stevens makes Tom an extraordinary creation. Many actors have played robotic figures before, and often very well, but here Stevens has the task of making Tom’s “learning curve” credible, and he does so while also ensuring that the process is funny. Watching his slight pauses as he calculates how to register Alma’s reactions in his program—her disdain for the sort of flattery and romantic gestures most women might welcome, her resistance to fantasies of “true love”—and then integrate the data into his algorithms is a priceless example of timing and comic minimalism.
All the supporting cast are excellent, but special mention should be made of Hüller, whose primly precise demeanor fits the corporate model, and Hübsch, whose crotchety characterization avoids any hint of sentimentality. The film’s look, courtesy of cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels, production designer Cora Pratz and costume designer Anette Guther, is clean and attractive, and Hansjörg Weißbrich’s editing is on point, with Tobias Wagner’s score discreet and supportive.
A rom-com like “I’m Your Man” is as programmed as Tom is, but in this case the program proves a remarkably satisfying one.