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► I’m Your Man is in UK cinemas from 13 August.
When Ira Levin wrote The Stepford Wives the world was a very different place. The 1972 society he satirised wasn’t reliant on pocket-sized technology and patriarchal hierarchies were woefully rigid. Maria Schrader’s I’m Your Man looks at similar territory to Stepford but through a contemporary gender-flipped lens. Our protagonist Alma (Maren Eggert) doesn’t live in perfectly manicured suburbia or need the robot partner she is given to clean her house, stroke her ego or raise her children; instead, he is designed only to make her happy. “After all,” he says with a fixed, unblinking stare, “doesn’t everyone want to be happy?”
I’m Your Man is a sci-fi romcom mashup, but leans harder into the latter; the existence of these robotic partners is never explained much beyond ‘science’, and the ramifications of their existence within wider society are barely glanced at. The story focuses on Alma, a successful anthropologist, recruited as one of a group of experts to spend a few weeks with a Tom (Dan Stevens), a robot designed to be her perfect partner, and report back on whether she believes robots like him should be allowed to exist.
Alma both is and isn’t a typical romcom heroine: she has a demanding career, an ex she hasn’t entirely recovered from and a complicated family life, and wears the hell out of a silk trench coat. But she’s not a twentysomething ‘cool girl’ who downs cocktails with an assortment of two-dimensional pals in a luxury apartment. Eggert makes her wary but kind, cerebral but sensitive. She approaches the task of her relationship with bemused professionalism, but cracks of vulnerability soon begin to show. At times she is dismissive and cruel towards Tom, whose reactions are not always what we, or Alma, would expect. While he is programmed to make her happy, that doesn’t mean complete obedience, and it’s in those moments of defiance that their relationship and Stevens’s performance are most intriguing.
The blossoming romance between woman and robot is easy to be swept up in – hard to imagine anyone resisting Tom’s charms. At first Stevens plays up the robot, glitching and offering precise but unsolicited advice. But, as he promises Alma, he improves, learning from her and becoming more nuanced and sensitive. Stevens sparks the film’s greatest joys with Tom’s physicality, creating subtle comedy with the way he holds a ten-euro note or pours a coffee. Even as Tom evolves into something increasingly human, Stevens offers an understated reminder of his robotic origins with a peculiar flick of the wrist.
Particular praise must go to Sandra Hüller as Tom and Alma’s relationship counsellor, gliding into scenes dressed as a retro-futuristic flight attendant and delivering exposition effortlessly entangled within sensible advice.
While I’m Your Man doesn’t entirely embrace romcom gender stereotypes and suggest that all an uptight woman needs is a candlelit bath, some flowers and a few compliments to be happy, it also doesn’t stray very far from that path. In the second act some regressive ideas begin to creep in and our heroine, now dressed like a resident of Stepford, seems to lose sight of the complicated woman we first met. But in the final act the film restores Alma to her former glory and the conclusion, while not perfectly satisfying, doesn’t land as a betrayal.
For the most part I’m Your Man seems to want to make the opposite point to The Stepford Wives, which satirised suburban housewives becoming increasingly reliant on machines to do the chores and pills to make it through the day. Levin’s book suggested men didn’t care about their wives’ existence beyond their ability to do housework and sexually satisfy them and would be perfectly happy with a robot partner. Schrader’s film instead posits that being happy might itself chip away at a person’s sanity and produce existential chaos. Whether or not that is a price worth paying for being loved and nurtured is something the film isn’t quite confident enough to answer.
I’m Your Man is an enjoyable but essentially lightweight affair; it poses questions about love, freedom of will, and what it means to be human but doesn’t really attempt to answer them. Instead we’re left with something far simpler, and its 105 minutes pass by pleasantly, which according to Tom is all we needed in the first place – just don’t think too hard, and “Be happy.”