When I first stumbled across Operator, I thought that surely I was the one who had dropped the ball on this film that came out back in 2016. It has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes! Everyone else must have heard about it, and talked about it, and obsessed about it, and I was probably too busy sticking my head under rocks. But when I took a pulse check of my friends and family, it turned out that no one else had heard of this film either. How does a movie starring Mae Whitman (of Parenthood, Good Girls, and Arrested Development), Martin Starr (Silicon Valley), and always-a-crowd-favorite Retta (she was in a little show called Parks and Recreation – ever heard of it?) slip so silently under the radar? Operator is like an Indie, mumblecore version of the 2013 film Her and like its predecessor, the lines of virtual and reality become quickly blurred.
You know when you call your health care provider and that annoying, automated voice picks up asking you to press one for this, two for that, and three if you’d rather go walk off a cliff? That’s the premise of Operator. But stay with me – it gets better, I promise. Operator follows Joe (Starr), who works as a coder for a company that designs those voices, and their latest client is Pauline ‘Roger’ Rogers (Retta), who’s the take-no-shit head of Welltrix Healthcare. And in the film’s opening moments, Roger is not a happy customer. The AI voice that Joe’s team designed for her is not cutting it. When terminally ill people call the healthcare line, the last thing they need is a soulless bot spouting numbers at them. Roger wants a more empathetic computer, which data-driven Joe insists is impossible. But Joe’s yes-man boss Gregg (Nat Faxon) agrees to get her a new voice ASAP, and we’re off to the races from there.
A little more background on Joe: he suffers from crippling anxiety, trusts data over feelings, is mildly insufferable, and is inexplicably married to a delightful woman named Emily (Whitman). Emily works at the front desk of a snobby Chicago hotel, but her real passion is the underground comedy group she just joined (think Second City or Upright Citizens Brigade). Emily is the opposite of Joe: soft-spoken, funny, and extremely empathetic. During his anxiety attacks, Joe often calls her at her front desk job and she talks him through them: calming him down, lifting his spirits, and ensuring him that no matter what happens, they’ll get through it together and everything will be okay. It’s during one of these sessions that Joe has an epiphany: Emily is his empathetic computer.
Joe and Co. immediately enlist Emily to be the voice of their new AI system and things go downhill as Joe finds himself falling in love with the predictable, computerized voice of his wife, which he personally designs to fit his every need. Real-life Emily is complex and thoughtful and spontaneous. She wants to quit her front desk job and follow her passion for the performing arts, and that scares Joe. The more she changes, the more he seeks solace in the comfort of AI Emily.
When human Emily realizes what’s happening, she’s understandably freaked and angry that she’s given everything to help her hubby out, only for him to replace her with a soulless, computer-generated version of herself.
So she leaves Joe, which causes him to fall into a pit of despair. For the first time, Joe has to deal with his anxiety and self-doubt and the reality that he cannot control his fate. And it’s during this all-is-lost panic attack that Joe has a realization: Life is unpredictable and while that’s terrifying, the fact that anything can happen is also what makes life worth living. Beauty lies in the unknown.
Post-epiphany, Joe is determined to save his relationship by doing the one thing that terrifies him most: performing sketch comedy. So he runs to Emily’s underground comedy club and hops on-stage to give the best scene of the entire movie:
That monologue actually reminds me of this beautifully calming Instagram story I randomly saw one time when I went down a IG self-help rabbit hole, which I find myself coming back to whenever I feel overwhelmed. Maybe it’ll help you too:
Back to Operator. (Side note: Does anyone else have “Smooth Operator” stuck in their head after reading the word “operator” so many times? Just me?) It’s a quiet movie without the flair of Her, but I think that’s what makes it so compelling. And while I did find Joe’s character grating and wondered what the hell Emily saw in him, he does redeem himself in the end. They say every movie is allowed one core element of disbelief that the audience will give them a pass on, so I’ll chalk Whitman and Starr’s lack of chemistry up to that.
And now, in closing, I leave you with this. Because the movie’s real MVP, Mae Whitman, gives one hell of a performance as a Smooth Operator: