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In 'I'm Your Man,' Failing At Romance Is Part Of The Algorithm

Tom (Dan Stevens) whisks a very skeptical Alma (Maren Eggert) around the dance floor as his precision-tooled algorithm tries to meet her every requirement for the perfect man.
Tom (Dan Stevens) whisks a very skeptical Alma (Maren Eggert) around the dance floor as his precision-tooled algorithm tries to meet her every requirement for the perfect man.

Alma (Maren Eggert) is an archaeologist in I'm Your Man, scientific in her approach, skeptical by nature, but even by her own standards she's asking Tom, the charming lug sitting opposite her in a dance club, some pretty odd questions for a first date.

"What are the sixth and seventh lines of your favorite poem?"

"What's the second-to-last letter of that poem?"

"What's 3,587 times 982 divided by 731?"

Though these are not the likeliest follow-ups to his having told her she's beautiful and that her "eyes are like two mountain lakes I could sink into," he answers without hesitation, reciting the sixth and seventh lines of Rilke's "Autumn Day" with feeling, and not even furrowing his brow before coming up with "e," the final line's penultimate letter, or solving the calculation to five decimal places.

Then he smiles at a change in the music — "Rumba!" — and leads Alma to the dance floor, where he's pretty dashing with the dips and the spins, until, with a slight twitch, he starts to repeat himself.

"Ich bin ... ich bin ... ich bin ... ich bin ..."

This first date, it turns out, is more of a test drive.

Tom, played by Dan Stevens in German (with a slight British accent that is explained away a moment later), is an android, programmed to appeal to Alma.

Speaking flawless German, Dan Stevens is the android of Maren Eggert's dreams.
/ Bleecker Street
Speaking flawless German, Dan Stevens is the android of Maren Eggert's dreams.

This was her boss' idea — he's on an ethics committee that has agreed to look at the ramifications of sentient robots. She'll report back at the end of a three-week trial period, during which Tom's precision-tooled algorithm will theoretically get better at meeting her every requirement of the perfect man.

Admittedly, things haven't started well. Alma dismisses Tom's "two mountain lakes" opening as not worthy of a greeting card. But that's the plan: As she resists, Tom will adapt. When she rejects a romantic brunch he cooks up the next morning, he'll try rose petals, candles, wine, and a bubble-bath in the evening.

"93% of German women dream of this," he tells her.

"Guess what percent I'm in?" she responds.

These qualify as fairly typical romcom-plications – Do Androids Dream of Romantic Dinners? — and the film does work amiably enough on that level, powered by a wryly skeptical, gradually warming performance by Eggers as the relationship-averse Alma, and a childlike, constantly recalibrating one by Dan Stevens as the wannabe android of her dreams.

But filmmaker Maria Schrader is less interested in the story's conventional romance tropes, or even in the AI implications that have been previously examined in films like Her and Ex Machina, than in what the "meeting-of-one's-every-requirement for the perfect partner" might mean for society.

If perfection in a mate can be custom-designed and manufactured, why would anyone bother interacting with actual humans? Tom is kind, generous, and singularly devoted to Alma, who can be as thoughtless as she likes without consequence. At one point she accidentally leaves him out in a downpour, and though she apologizes profusely when she comes back, he didn't actually mind. Waiting in the cafe, waiting in the rain — to him, it's all the same.

To her though, it's perplexing in ways that anyone who's ever inadvertently said "thanks" to Siri will understand.

Alma — whose name in Spanish means "soul" — isn't just any test-driver. Her job is to judge whether ethics apply to artificially intelligent — but nonetheless intelligent – sentient beings like Tom. Should they be allowed to marry, work, get passports?

Filmmaker Schrader rather likes to pose philosophical, relational, and artificial-intelligenzical questions. Which may set viewers to asking a few — say, "What Hollywood algorithm determines the number of nanoseconds before I'm Your Man gets remade in English?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.