For a screen romance to work, we have to believe in the couple. Why are they together? Why are they fated to be together?
“Operator” is a love story that doesn’t explain that away in a flash. The film makes us work for that understanding, read beyond what is obvious right there on the screen. Because whatever the different financial circumstances/career trajectory that pulls Emily (Mae Whitman) to Joe (Martin Starr), the love connection isn’t obvious.
He’s in tech, the programming/data analysis whiz at a small company that creates Interactive Voice Response Systems, the fake operators that most firms have you talk to so they don’t have to pay people to solve your health care, banking, cell service, credit card or IRS problems.
She’s the concierge operator at a swanky Chicago hotel, with dreams of fitting in with one of the city’s famed improvisational theater/comedy troupes.
It’s never articulted, but Joe is “on the spectrum.” He speaks in a near monotone, is data obsessed, brusque to the point of rude, doesn’t joke, never laughs or smiles.
Perhaps there are people who find that warm, charming and attractive. But Emily? Who wants to be treated as the sum or her statistical biases, especially in an argument?
“You’re only as predictable” as the data makes you “appear,” he explains.
“I’m sure you’re right,” she offers, avoiding an argument over being reduced to an algorhythm.
“I have the data.”
Their marriage remains a head-scratcher when he is up against a deadline and decides his wife’s disarming, empathetic “work voice” would be the perfect for a healthcare system’s rebooting IVRS. His boss (Nat Faxon) agrees, and soon work and home life are colliding as Joe puts Emily in the studio, recording thousands of greetings, exchanges and phrases, reducing her to a contract employee and just ” voice.”
He also puts an app on her phone that allows him to record and analyze the sounds she makes in degrees of “professionalism” and “empathy.” He’s way into her life,, violating her privacy in ways she doesn’t even realize.
The payback for her is “real money, money with commas” that could allow her to quit serving hotel guests and stick to serving her fellow actors in improvisational sketches — “30 plays in 60 minutes.”
And then we see Joe interact with his mother (Christine Lahti), walking her through city regulation issues, and having a fall-on-the-floor panic attack when she has a health scare.
That’s the connection. Emily is drawn to people who need her, people she can be of service to. It’s either that or she’s way into scraggly hipster near-beards.
Starr, a veteran character actor (“Veronica Mars,” “Spider Man: Far From Home”) maintains a nearly unemotive poker face throughout “Operator,” getting under the skin of a guy who recognizes Emily’s unique qualities, and breaks them down to the point where her voice alone is almost enough.
The script builds that hard shell for a reason, of course. We’re going to see it crack, and Starr also manages that with touching skill.
Whitman, a former child actress turned starlet (“The DUFF” and “Perks of Being a Wallflower”) has the harder job — convincing us of the attraction here. I’m still not sure I buy it, but her scenes with the improv ensemble are a stitch, an eager young writer/comedienne getting a little too much pressure from home, and a bit too much scrutiny by the comedy company’s leader (Cameron Esposito).
Whitman, fortunately, conveys enough warmth and charm (especially in a great scene with Lahti) to carry the picture.
There’s little that I’d call hilarious here, as “Operator” is more smart, smooth and droll than laugh-out-loud funny. And there two significant betrayals that test the relationship, and one of them is left annoyingly unacknowledge and unresolved before the credits roll.
It’s still an intelligent and yes — with a bit of a strain — believable screen romance, a picture with heartfelt moments and an interesting chilly, inhuman technology debate as subtext. Ignore the fact that she seems out of his emotional league and you’ve got a winner.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, sexual content
Cast: Martin Starr, Mae Whitman, Christine Lahti, Nat Faxon, Cameron Esposito
Credits: Directed by Logan Kibens, script by Logan Kibens and Sharon Greene. An Orchard release, on Netflix
Running time: 1:30