by Andrew Wyatt on Sep 29, 2021

If one were to envision a laboratory-grown ideal boyfriend, he might look a little like Dan Stevens. The British actor is a striking man, certainly – the strong chin, the expressive lips, and, of course, those icy baby blues – but his handsomeness has a somewhat plastic quality. He’s a little too blandly dashing, like a spokesmodel in an artisan vodka advertisement. To his credit, the breakout Downton Abbey performer seems to appreciate this. He has accordingly found unconventional ways to wield his good looks on the big screen: weaponizing them to terrifying effect in The Guest (2014); chewing the scenery as a hissable White supremacist in Marshall (2017); and gamely satirizing his himbo image in Eurovision Song Contest (2020).

It’s therefore probably safe to assume that German filmmaker Maria Schrader (Unorthodox) knew exactly what she was doing when she cast Stevens as a bespoke android boyfriend in her new feature, I’m Your Man. It’s an inspired choice, really, given what the viewer learns about the development of such robot life partners. A glossy tech giant has built Tom (Stevens) expressly for a historian named Alma (Maren Eggert), one of several academics who are participating in a three-week trial evaluation of the, er, product. Alma has consented to this social experiment reluctantly, due to some hazy arrangement that will secure funding for her research into Sumerian cuneiform. As the chipper corporate spokeswoman (Toni Erdmann’s Sandra Hüller) explains, Tom has been custom-engineered based on an allegedly exhaustive profile of Alma’s romantic needs and wants.

Yet there’s also something a tad generic about Tom. When he and Alma have their first encounter – at a swinging holographic nightclub designed to spark an amorous connection – he is polite and charming but a little insistent. He orders the wine, leads on the dance floor, and offers her facile compliments. He feels less like a distinct individual than a mathematical average: Median Boyfriend. Later, when his attempt at a conventional romantic gesture falls flat, he protests, “93% of German women dream of this.” Without missing a beat, Alma dryly retorts, “And guess which group I belong to.”

When she first takes Tom home, Alma eyes him warily, as though he might turn Terminator at any moment. (She forces him to sleep in a converted storage closet and pointedly deadbolts her bedroom door at night.) Furthermore, his cloying, eager-to-please demeanor and “helpful” suggestions quickly get on her nerves. She’s vaguely insulted that anyone would think she could be so easily captivated by such a clumsy simulation of romance. However, Tom is not just a thinking machine – he’s a learning machine, and he responds to every frustrated glance and passive-aggressive silence with a slight adjustment to his behavior. Stevens has a marvelous way of cocking his head every time Tom’s words or actions are met with cold hostility, as though the android’s processors are crunching this new bit of information and recalibrating accordingly.

Gradually, Tom starts to discern what makes Alma tick. She is obsessively focused on her research, motivated by equal parts professional ego and genuine curiosity. She is anxious about her elderly father’s (Wolfgang Hübsch) accelerating dementia and how she and her sister (Annika Meier) will properly care for him. She is still secretly distraught about the abrupt dissolution of her marriage, especially now that her ex-husband (Hans Löw) and his new partner (Henriette Richter-Röhl) are moving in together. Underneath her independent and tough-minded demeanor, Alma also has a hidden romantic streak. She dreams not of the future, but the past, reminiscing with her sister about a magical childhood summer spent in Denmark and about the local boy they secretly loved from afar. When she slyly incorporates Tom into this memory, suggesting that he might have been that crush, he smiles and smoothly plays along – just as he does when she introduces him to her co-workers as a British colleague researching Persian history. (An easy-enough con when one can wirelessly access Wikipedia at the speed of thought.)

Tom observes these aspects of her life with interest and sensitivity, but also with the objective clarity of a behavioral anthropologist. At one point, an exasperated Alma insists that Tom couldn’t possibly understand her complex human emotions and motivations. In response, Tom glibly but not unkindly summarizes the current state of her life in a few sentences, to which she retorts, “It sounds banal when you say it.” Finding someone who gets you is important, but does comprehending Alma’s personal tribulations with perfect lucidity make Tom an ideal boyfriend – or just a good therapist?

Easily the most distinctive thing about I’m Your Man is its refusal to settle decisively into the conventions of a particular genre. It is a science-fiction fable, but apart from the existence of cutting-edge androids, the film’s futurism is reflected in neither the script nor the production design. (Near-future Germany looks exactly like present-day Germany; Blade Runner this is not.) The film nods to the conventions of romantic comedy, with the careerist, lovelorn Alma resembling a textbook romcom protagonist in many respects. Meanwhile, Tom’s naïve bumbling through the at-times-confounding human world recalls fish-out-of-water comedies such as Being There (1979) and Big (1988). However, I’m Your Man is more wry than funny, and it generally takes a serious-minded, matter-of-fact approach to its high-concept premise.

Indeed, the film’s sincere tone is such that Alma reads as a much trickier and more anguished figure than a typical pratfall-prone American romcom heroine. In contrast to such protagonists – who are often oblivious to the desires that are plain as day to the viewer – it’s not clear that Alma even wants romantic love in her life. “I don’t know what I want!” she shouts in frustration, “That’s how it is sometimes when you’re human!” As alluring as Tom’s warmth and thoughtfulness might be, Alma can never completely overlook the inherent phoniness of the relationship. At one point, she vividly describes her situation as a one-woman show performed for an empty house – a theater of the absurd aimed at tricking herself into happiness. Alma just can't get past the pathetic nature of this farce, no matter how intensely she might crave that happiness.

Schrader co-wrote the film’s screenplay with Jan Schomburg, adapting it from a short story by German author Emma Braslavsky. It’s clear from the film’s emphasis on Alma that the filmmaker views the story primarily as a character drama, and that its out-there premise is a convenient fiction to examine the role romantic relationships play in our understanding of ourselves. I’m Your Man isn’t all that concerned with the science or philosophy of consciousness, and the screenplay seems to take it as a given that Tom is not “real,” just as any emotions he might elicit in a romantic partner are not real. It’s an unexpectedly pessimistic film with respect to technology, although Schrader leaves enough wiggle room to concede that the illusion of happiness might be just as important to some people as true contentment.

Compared to artier, more cerebral sci-fi films like Her (2013) and Ex Machina (2014), Schrader’s film isn’t breaking any new ground. I’m Your Man won’t be remembered for its visionary production design or its challenging questions about the ethics of artificial intelligence. It’s just a solid drama anchored by two expertly shaded performances from Eggert and Stevens. Overall, the film feels a little too unhurried for its own good, with some of the conversations between Alma and Tom seeming to needlessly cover the same ground. Moreover, the film’s languid, uneven pacing at times makes it feel like the director isn’t all that certain where she’s going with the story – a frustrating problem given the three-week deadline that looms over the film’s events. The feature does have a satisfying final scene, however, one which leaves many points unresolved but nonetheless concludes the story rather beautifully. Somehow, Schrader manages to evoke whiffs of La Dolce Vita (1960), Barton Fink (1991), and The Shawshank Redemption (1994) all at once, which is a pretty nifty feat.

Rating: B-

I’m Your Man will open in select St. Louis theaters on Oct. 1 and will be available to rent from major online platforms on Oct. 12.