Love in the time of dial up: Operator review

Since its premiere at SXSW, Operator has been compared to Her and Black Mirror, but I’d liken it to a Twilight Zone episode. It’s less sci-fi and more romantic drama. The fact that the story’s based in reality makes it seem chillingly possible.

Martin Starr plays Joe, a personality designer for digital customer service voices. Prone to crippling panic attacks, he tracks every aspect of his life to help control his anxiety. When his latest robo-agent crashes and burns, he uses his wife, Emily (Mae Whitman), an aspiring actress, to create a more empathetic template. The project goes well until Joe develops a weird obsession with recreating Emily’s voice.

He begins an affair of sorts, to the point where he’s literally jacking off to his wife’s voice. The scene could’ve been comical, but Starr’s restrained performance keeps the movie grounded. Joe’s fear of losing Emily as she changes, coupled with his anxiety, makes the situation seem all the more plausible. Starr was brilliant in Adventureland, and I’m glad we’re seeing more of him on Silicon Valley. He’s not a typical leading man, which makes Operator a great vehicle to show he has more to offer than just a few gags in another Seth Rogen movie.

Whitman was the best part of the otherwise forgettable The Duff, and I’ve been excited to see what else she can do. She’s totally infectious as Emily. In one of the movie’s more poignant scenes, she helps calm Joe’s mother down by belting out a Patti Smith song with her.

Operator has some great camera work, but suffers from looking a little too film school-y. It could’ve done without a few scenes, particularly one where Joe imagines dressing Emily up as a customer service rep. He’s such a great actor, you don’t need to show us what he’s thinking! Also, maybe this is just me, but I was hoping for it to be a little more f-cked up. Joe jerking off to a recording of Emily’s voice is as close as we get, before a predictable resolution.

These are all rookie mistakes from director, Logan Kibens’ otherwise promising feature film debut. What could’ve been a hokey concept is a thoughtful look at relationships and technology.

I'll post my interview with Kibens soon.

Image credit: Cruze & Company

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