This review of I’m Your Man is part of our ongoing press coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. From reviews to interviews to recap lists, follow along for all things TIFF 2021.
Alma Felser (Maren Eggert) sits alone at a cabaret. She’s waiting for someone. Or is that something? In her capacity as an expert in the scientific community, Alma has been offered a special job partway between quality assurance and ethics board member. Her mission, should she choose to accept it, is to evaluate a model in a new line of humanoid cyborgs to determine what rights they should be granted in society. An android has been created specifically for her. He’s the perfect partner, ostensibly capable of responding to her every conscious and unconscious need. Also, he can dance the rumba. (Whether or not he can Roomba is another matter).
Despite her heavy skepticism, Alma reluctantly accepts to participate in the experiment when her research funding is placed in the balance. And so, Alma is entrusted with a three-week trial of Tom (Dan Stevens), the robotic man of her dreams. Programmed with an English accent and a relentless eagerness to ensure Alma’s happiness, Tom sets about showing the reserved Alma just how human a robot can be. And of course, as is the rom-com way, Alma’s progressively deepening relationship with Tom forces her to confront the boundaries of her human need for love and affection.
Directed by Maria Schrader (Unorthodox), who co-wrote the script with Jan Schomburg from a short story by Emma Braslavsky, I’m Your Man is a strange, sweet, and unapologetically weird entry in the sparsely populated sci-fi rom-com genre. All fiction about androids and artificial intelligence is, ultimately, an opportunity to probe our own flawed programming: the ways we rely on past observations to judge how we should interact with others; and how we are the sum total of all the experiences and data we’ve been fed over the years, for better or worse.
For all the world-altering implications of its cyborg set-up, I’m Your Man is true to its rom-com roots in its modest, interpersonal stakes. We’re told the fate of robotkind rests (at least partially) in Alma’s assessment. But the film is pointedly disinterested in any potential Hinge-meets-Terminator robot uprising or heavy-handed servile class metaphors. Instead, its philosophical inquiry is appropriately intimate: a personal matter of where, on an individual level, we choose to draw the line of where love can happen. In an age where every search result, product, and news piece is curated by an algorithm to suit our individual tastes, I’m Your Man certainly raises some thorny, and for the most part unanswered, questions. But in the end, the film trusts us to chew on these more pointed thematic nuggets ourselves, opting to focus on its love story rather than kill the mood with a grim reminder that our phones are always listening. This is, it goes without saying, a good call.
Now look, I understand that people “can speak more than one language” and that Dan Stevens “has been able to speak fluent German this whole time, actually.” But for viewers familiar with Stevens’ prior small and big screen work, seeing the actor speak entirely in German is absolutely bananas in the best way possible. You’ll believe a robot can love! And you’ll believe that Dan “Englishman” Stevens is actually a German robot engineered to be a foreign-yet-accessible romantic partner.
You may have heard rumblings that Stevens’ performance in I’m Your Man ranks up there with his best work. And I’m here to enthusiastically join my colleagues in banging the hell out of that drum. Stevens is the uncanny valley of actors. He isn’t quite conventionally handsome enough to make it as a tried-and-true leading man. And he isn’t quite weird-looking enough to pass as a bonafide character actor. The result, usually, is that films don’t quite know how to best utilize his strange unplaceable screen presence. One exception, perhaps, is Adam Wingard’s 2014 slasher The Guest, in which Stevens plays a charming predator-in-wait whose deadly intentions can’t help but peek through. I’m here to crown I’m Your Man as the new reigning champion of “how to use your Dan Stevens properly.” Despite Tom’s approachable qualities, you can immediately tell that something is off. Which is the perfect vibe for a Rainer Maria Rilke-quoting love robot, who feels utterly human despite our knowledge that he’s made of wires and silica.
While it’s an absolute hoot to see Stevens’ intrinsic je-ne-sais-quoi weaponized to this extent, his intentioned performance is remarkable in its own right. There’s a subtle draw to Tom’s earnest attempts to please and understand, his unexpected sass and humor, and the uncanny way that he does, in the end, make a compelling case for a fuzzier boundary of what it means to be human and worthy of love.
Alongside Stevens’ charm and necessary strangeness is Eggert, whose Berlin Silver Bear-winning performance endows Alma with a relatable depth that never threatens to boil over into melodrama. She’s middle-aged, recently separated, and wary not only of androids but of her own ability to deserve and accept love and intimacy. Fantastical sci-fi circumstances be damned, Alma never feels untethered or exaggerated in her thoroughly modern struggle with her robot-supplied happiness. And I’m Your Man is able to play all the more confidently in its in-between genre space as a result.
Indeed, I’m Your Man successfully interrogates the complexities of modern companionship without getting too lost in its own sci-fi sauce. As a result, the film’s final message favors the simple (but true) takeaways of its more rom-com inclinations. None of its observations are especially earth-shattering. But they resonate deeply and sometimes that’s enough. In the end, the film is more focused on relationships and human interactions than any weighty and troubling questions regarding artificial, à la carte intimacy. In other words: it is a film more interested in what it means to be human than what it means to date a robot. Which, and apologies to all the robots reading this, is perfectly fine with us.