There’s something a little too perfect about Dan Stevens. Even when he’s not literally playing a Disney prince, he looks like one: poised, chiseled, giving off a clean-cut aura no matter his state of grooming. For as much as the Downton Abbey alum has capitalized on his leading-man presentability—how suited he is to wearing suits—his best performances play deviously on that quality. Think of The Guest, in which Stevens’ hunkiness operated like a smoke screen (it was almost an inverted Beauty And The Beast, hiding a wolf under sheep’s clothing), or of last summer’s Eurovision, wherein he spoofed his own Ken Doll appeal. To that list of self-subversions one can now add I’m Your Man, a clever and sneakily resonant mix of sci-fi, comedy, and drama that finally just goes right ahead and casts the star as a heartthrob built in a lab.
Tom, the character Stevens plays, is a “dream partner:” an entirely synthetic humanoid designed to fulfill one particular person’s every emotional and sexual need. He’s a literal love machine, in other words. And from the moment he steps on screen, into a hopping, vaguely anachronistic nightclub where the new products first mingle with the humans they’ve been carefully calibrated to satisfy, it’s clear that Stevens has found an ideal application for the slight uncanniness of his charisma. Tom has the smooth moves of A.I.’s Gigolo Joe and some of the quizzical cluelessness of Star Trek’s Data, all wrapped up in the classical good looks of, well, Matthew Crawley.
I’m Your Man is set in a near future where robot lovers are still a cutting-edge innovation, not an everyday commodity. Tom, who’s essentially a test model, has been customized to what you could call the advanced dating profile of the user he’ll be going home with: Alma (Maren Eggert), a research scientist who’s only agreed to the three-week study in exchange for funding from the company seeking her feedback. She’s to weigh in, based on what she experiences with Tom, on the let’s say effectiveness of the technology—and also maybe on how wise it would be to unleash a bunch of Toms on the public.
Alma, we quickly learn, is a hard-nosed pragmatist, even something of an academic crank, and she has no expectation of actually developing any real relationship with this handsome computer staying in her apartment for the better part of a month. Still, Tom is persistent—his whole reason for existing is to win her over, to fulfill her every fantasy. Adapted from a short story by Emma Braslavsky that could have served, with a tweak in tone, as the source material for a Black Mirror episode, I’m Your Man recognizes the inherent comic possibilities of its premise without pushing them into broad farce. Some of the humor rests on Alma’s initial ease in resisting the algorithm. Like any computer, Tom has to be taught the user preferences: On their way home, he constructively, scientifically critiques her driving, and her wordless response is all he requires to begin course correcting towards behavior she’ll better appreciate. He also totally rearranges her apartment, then swiftly returns it to its original state when met with irritation, not swooning.
Still, Alma isn’t made of stone, even if she approaches her strange situation with a rational skepticism. Against her best judgement, she starts to like Tom, to warm to his attempts at seduction and ingratiation. And how could she not, when that comes in the form of Dan Stevens, doing a cybernetic approximation of her romantic ideal? The film even supplies a funny explanation for why Stevens is speaking fluent German in an English accent: It’s part of his programming, a setting designed to match whatever hidden desires of nationality she betrayed through the questionnaire process. The filmmaker, Maria Schrader, who directed all four episodes of Netflix’s Unorthodox, keeps the tone just left of romantic-comedy center.
I’m Your Man doesn’t go exactly where you might expect it to. Its slightly unpredictable trajectory is set by Alma’s stubborn understanding of the illusion she’d have to buy into to fall for Tom. (“I’m acting in a play,” she says when things get weird.) There are genuine big concerns nipping at the edges of the film’s high concept—questions about happiness, the value of conflict in relationships, and even what makes someone human. (By the film’s definition, it’s a way of looking, maybe an understanding of life’s intangible poetry.) Does Tom become more human, his artificial intelligence evolving to genuinely bond with the person he was created to please? Or does his advanced CPU, as diligent as the T-800’s, merely find a way to react to her resistance—at one point by actually denying her drunken desires in favor of something like the long game? I’m Your Man leaves such matters intriguingly ambiguous.
This is, perhaps, a movie easy to oversell. It earns a lot of goodwill simply by never devolving into a dumber version of itself, into what you might expect from a film featuring Dan Stevens as a sexy robot. But I’m Your Man’s charms are real, and steeped in a lightly inquisitive, even philosophical engagement with the meatier matters of smart science fiction and smart relationship drama. Credit the performances for keeping the balance of frothy-to-thoughtful. Eggert, best known to American cinephiles for her work in the much more esoteric films of Angela Schanelec, identifies the comedy of Alma’s experience as a kind of intellectual screwball: the relatable hilarity of trying to square what the head knows with what the heart wants. And she’s got a great scene partner in Stevens, refining his star power into a just slightly, almost imperceptibly mechanical approximation of Don Juan smolder. He lets us admire the interface and still see the code ticking away underneath it.