Anytime someone makes a concerted effort to shake up rom-com formulas, I’m all in. While the bougie and hyper-literate can poo-poo the whole genre as trite or corny, they’ve either got no heart, or they’ve never truly seen a great rom-com hit the admittedly rare sweet spot of story, actor chemistry and tonal execution.
German director Maria Schrader almost achieves that sweet spot with I’m Your Man, but gets a little muddled in her storytelling in the last minutes. That doesn’t take away from her subtle and mature study of loneliness and intimacy via technology. And that tech isn’t the expected smartphone dating app, but rather a humanoid robot programmed to be the perfect partner to whomever is seeking companionship.
Set in the very near future, Alma (Maren Eggert) is an expert researcher at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. A workaholic, she’s closing in on publishing a three-year long study on specific cuneiform translations that prove that ancient language was not just utilitarian but lyrical and poetic in its function. Falling short on funds, she agrees to be part of a three-week research program where she’ll provide her colleague an in-depth report advising for or against the ethics of a new technology: Entirely lifelike robots algorithmically programmed to be the perfect partner.
For Alma, the tech company has programmed Tom (Dan Stevens), a handsome, smart, blonde specimen who also speaks German with a slight British accent because she likes the exotic. But it’s soon very clear that Alma is actually not fond of much outside her research group and her work, so Tom pushes all of her solitary person buttons. Despite Tom trying his very best to provide what most women want—rose petal drawn baths, cooked breakfast every morning, house tidying without asking—he can’t seem to crack Alma’s standoffish nature.
Alma is forced to confront her own life as she cohabitates with Tom. Where she’s empathetic with her father and his dementia, Tom is treated like an afterthought. But Tom pleasantly endures her casual thoughtlessness because he’s a robot and he’s literally programmed to ingest all negative responses to recalculate for the next time.
And it’s in Tom’s observations of what’s really going on between the lines with Alma that he begins to chip away at her very tall emotional walls. As she stridently says to him at one point, she’s in the 7% of women who don’t respond to what most women want. Compartmentalizing herself from her feelings and any connection, she’s figured out how to efficiently bottle up her past hurts and disappointments so deep inside, it actually takes a robot to pry them out of her.
Eggert does a beautiful job modulating Alma’s slow thaw towards Tom. We watch her become smitten with him not through his sweeping gestures, but in the tiny moments of helping her recent ex take a last possession out to his car, or not taking advantage of her when she’s incredibly sad and drunk, or even listening to tales of her first love (also named Tom) while visiting her family. It’s a great moment when she has the sobering realization that she feels most seen and heard by a robot that can cut right through her self-pity and past traumas.
Stevens is also pitch perfect as he moves Tom away from his initial cloying programming and assimilates to Alma’s pragmatic needs. Watching him make that transition is like witnessing an expert race car driver shift for the most efficient ride possible; you weren’t aware it was happening but they sure did win that race. And it’s delightfully unexpected that the film doubles down on robot Tom as the romantic, doggedly undeterred in figuring out how to be the best partner he can for Alma.
The film gets a bit messy in trying to land Alma’s “head vs. heart” dilemma. Intellectually, she can’t let go of the fact that Tom is just a very handsome deflection for her loneliness. Even after experiencing a perfect day with him, she understands that, in reality, he isn’t really experiencing life with her, but just reflecting her ideal life back at her. It’s a deep place to take the story, and a far more thoughtful take on the perils of technology than other meditations on the theme. But Alma’s duality about how Tom could, or should, function in her life gets murky in the end, which is disappointing simply because the film is so strident in its actions up to that point. Regardless, I’m Your Man succeeds in breathing gentle life into the well-worn genre by proving that, just like Tom, the perception of something’s value can actually be hiding something surprisingly deep.
Director: Maria Schrader
Writer: Maria Schrader, Jan Schomberg
Starring: Maren Eggert, Dan Stevens, Sandra Hüller, Hans Löw
Release Date: September 24, 2021
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and The Story of Marvel Studios in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.