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Joe (Martin Starr) is a computer programmer. He’s rigid, highly-organized, introverted, technical, and pragmatically observant. Emily (Mae Whitman) is a hotel concierge and comedy improv performer. She’s energetic, passionate, extroverted and care-free. The perfect couple, right? Indeed they seem to be, married and content, their differences make for a super mix, mostly, but there are subtle cracks in the foundation. And they are widening.
Joe works for a software company that needs to change their prototype voice for a smart app being developed for a healthcare system called Welltrix. As the client’s boss, Pauline ‘Roger’ Rogers (Retta) wants a female voice with empathy–something never seen in automated voices–it’s a daunting task, but she gives them little choice, especially since the first test voice drew a firestorm of anger from disgruntled and confused users.
Hearing Emily over the phone speak to an irate customer at the hotel one day, noticing how calmly and sensitively she does so, Joe proposes to the team that they use her for the next prototype. They agree and Emily joins the project, excited by the prospect to earn money, leave the hotel and work more on her on-stage career. The more she records her voice though, and the more Joe manipulates it to become the voice of Welltrix, the larger the gap between them becomes as she grows to resent the lack of human contact the app will ensure and he to the steady, always supportive voice in the system. It leads to a conflict with challenging and troubling consequences.
Directed (and co-written) by Logan Kibens, Operator mines a lot from its simple premise, stretching the conflict and resolution to an almost fatal length, despite its crisp 90-minute runtime, and yet, manages to fill most of it with enough punch and sauce to keep it compelling. That’s mostly due to two sweet performances from the leads, who are a bit on the nose in terms of character traits, but that only makes them work better narratively. They are natural together and Whitman especially sparks a lot of life to the story, which admittedly bends the rules of quirky indie comedy but doesn’t break.
What would seem like the biggest potential for failing is the film’s heavy-handed and obvious attempts to illustrate their differences by showing them at their polar opposite jobs, but instead works surprisingly well. The twist, if you will, is that while Joe pulls away from Emily the person, he becomes weirdly attached to Emily in the app. Meanwhile, as Emily the person gets her feet wet at the improv group she is performing with, she pulls the idea of Joe into her act. Each allows the other to face some serious truths. It’s fun and clever and produces some genuine moments.
Where the film stumbles a bit are in the subplots. One with Joe’s colleague (Nat Faxon) trying to win back his girlfriend who suddenly, after using one of Joe’s apps, declares herself lesbian and literally leaves him, never to be seen again, has no real payoff, despite the possiblity for something deeper. Another, with Joe’s mother (the wonderful Christine Lahti) also can’t find the right tone, and the swings from drama to kooky don’t quite fit. She too is a character left unfinished.
Operator has a great concept but it doesn’t truly take the risks it should have, and follows a fairly well-established formula, including a hard-to believe large-scale public display of affection that has become the most unappealing element of all modern romance films. What might have been a more challenging moment is instead an obvious one.
Still, for what it is, Operator is a pleasant watch and clever enough to merit a look. Whitman will win you over and there’s no denying the appeal of she and Starr, a real-life looking couple that face real-life questions.
Director: Logan Kibens
Writers: Sharon Greene, Logan Kibens
Stars: Martin Starr, Mae Whitman, Nat Faxon