While it eventually morphs into a philosophically wired story evolving a premise echoing “Her” or the standout “Black Mirror” entry “Be Right Back,” some of the earliest interactions between would-be lovers Tom (Dan Stevens) and Alma (Maren Eggert) in “I’m Your Man” reach further back into cinematic history, toward foundational romantic comedy tropes. A first date (of sorts) goes south, though not for the reasons you’re likely imagining; there’s a sweetly awkward “Welcome to my place, sorry for the mess” tour; a bit of mansplaining about driver safety leads to a cold shoulder. Some extra emphasis is due on the “AI” in “mansplaining,” seeing as Tom isn’t just an exceedingly handsome man but an exceedingly handsome robot man, a prototype built to the supposed specifications of Alma’s dream guy.
Some recalibration is undertaken by Tom upon realizing his backseat driving wasn’t simply the stuff of good intentions to Alma. Though we may not readily admit it, us humans don’t have much use for such practicality. That’s more or less the idea being tugged at by German actor-turned-director Maria Schrader’s wise and satisfying, if slightly overstated, take on the human-robot-romance subgenre. Her third feature finds her doing some recalibrating of her own, threading the fluid dynamics of a meet-cute between two strangers through the needle’s eye of ever-topical digital-analog quandaries.
Worry not: “I’m Your Man” is a much more accessible movie than the last words of that paragraph suggest. Scrader’s hand is a confident one, made even steadier through an intelligent pattern of genre-switching which naturally makes the characters of “I’m Your Man” more appealing as an anchor point for our investment rather than its concepts. Alma, an archaeologist of sorts studying ancient languages, has reluctantly agreed to a three-week test of Tom’s potential as an AI partner in exchange for a valuable research opportunity. She’s told she’s on the edge of a potential world-changing innovation, but it’s a gesture of the soft-cushioned grace with which Schrader underpins her film that Alma waves away the thought. A pricklier, more foreboding version of “I’m Your Man” would lay the potential for suspense on thick as Alma brings Tom home for the first time (he’ll be staying in the guest room), but the screenplay (adapted by Schrader and Jan Schomburg from a short story penned by Emma Braslavsky) establishes a distinct jumping-off point much funnier and warm-hearted than what you might expect.
Stevens helps in that effort too; his performance is bracingly boyish and good-natured as a character programmed, above all, to please, whether that means tidying up, cooking breakfast or organizing a rose petal-trailed evening of romance. We’re smitten, but Alma – whose loyalties are confined to her work and her lonely father – is merely annoyed. More enticingly, she’s annoyed at her nibbling curiosity about this perfect specimen, especially as her own flaws round the bend and into view.
Just how subdued are the brainy and heart-rending wavelengths both of “I’m Your Man”? Consider that this story we’d traditionally categorize as sci-fi seems to resist being placed in that box. The aesthetic of Cora Pratz’s sets, though sleek enough to make a cluttered apartment look attractive, doesn’t emphasize the automation of things. Benedict Neuenfels’s images are crisp and clean-lined, but they also take on a bit of a mystical quality when harmonizing with the editing work by Hansjörg Weißbrich. There’s no exposed circuitry, flying cars or world-scanning visors. Were this a silent film, there would be practically nothing to indicate its futuristic flourishes—save, that is, for an early scene where Alma swirls through a room of holograms, gleefully swiping through deceptive-looking champagne glasses and dancers.
Without spoiling too much, her evident embrace of the non-real entities around her in that brief display of one-sided celebration casually forms the architecture of the story to come. Our perspective begins to shift when Tom learns more about Alma’s history of loss, details the various brain scans she underwent to calibrate her AI partner didn’t pick up on. Pay close attention to the subtle changes in Eggert’s physicality over the course of her and Tom’s romance, and over the course of the soft insistence from multiple players that she must open herself up to the experience of potential happiness eventually.
“I’m Your Man” finishes by putting a bit too fine a point on its otherwise deceptively subdued commentary, but it also suggests it isn’t romance that’s the right R-word for this mostly platonic tale about the synchronization of two figures with different ways of looking at the world, but rediscovery.
"I'm Your Man" is rated R for some sexual content and language. It releases Friday in some theaters.
Starring: Maren Eggert, Dan Stevens, Sandra Hüller, Hans Löw
Directed by Maria Schrader
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