Operator is the latest in a long line of films that try to tackle the complicated situation many couples find themselves in when they attempt to blend love and work. Everything new it has to say on the topic is connected to the role technology plays in our lives, which is good to a point, but the film’s overreliance on tired genre tropes make it hard to stay engaged.
Joe (Martin Starr) is a programmer obsessed with data and probability. He tracks everything in his life and the lives of those around him, including his emotions and how the sunrise changes from day to day on his morning run. To improve an automated telephone receptionist he and his coworkers are building for a major healthcare client, Joe turns to his wife, Emily (Mae Whitman), for assistance.
Emily is a hotel receptionist who dreams of a life on stage. Her days are spent handling complaints from angry customers, but at night she finds a sense of freedom by participating in a comedy troupe that leverages real life experiences for laughs. In addition to this, Emily is a kind of therapist for Joe. He suffers from panic attacks and abandonment issues, both of which seem to flair up whenever something good comes Emily’s way, and it’s her ability to comfort him that eventually leads Joe to recommend Emily as the voice of his automated receptionist.
For a while, the couple seems to grow closer as a result of their decision to collaborate. Not only is there more money in their home, but because of the long hours required to make Joe’s receptionist program the couple is also able to spend more time together. This is a good thing, too, because Joe’s mother is battling disease and he is doing his best to not let the anxiety of life’s many stresses break him. Emily is a cure of sorts, or at least a comfort, and she commits to the added workload because Joe tells her it will enable her to quit working at the hotel.
Things become increasingly complicated when Emily begins to excel at her comedy career. The demands of the troupe pull Emily further away from Joe, and as a result she is unable to ease his mind when the weight of the world begins to take hold. Joe, not wanting to feel his anxiety, turns to recordings of Emily’s voice to get him through the day. The distance between them continues to grow, leading each to wonder if the other still plays a role in their lives.
Starr has been building a strong body of work through smaller indie fare for several years now, but Operator marks the first time Whitman has taken on a serious romantic role. Though the two are separated by six years of life, not to mention completely different career paths, the roles of Joe and Emily feel tailor made for this pair. Their work is admirable, and they help add dramatic weight to moments that are a bit too familiar for their own good.
The message Operator has to share about technology and our reliance on it to make us feel connected to the world at large could not be more clear. Like Her and other films that have attempted to capture the intersection between love and technology in recent years, Operator asks us if there is anything wrong with finding comfort in artificial intelligence. Technology can bring us closer, but can it pull us apart as well? Can a voice heard through a phone take the place of a real person? Conclusions are drawn, but whether or not they sell you on being true is another story altogether.