Joe Larsen (Freaks and Geeks alum Martin Starr) is a programmer with a problem. His company’s client is getting some bad press because of an artificial intelligence program he wrote that is “not nice enough” and this is a problem because the client is a health care company. Tasked with making the program more empathetic, he turns to the nicest and most empathetic person he knows: his wife Emily (Arrested Development’s Mae Whitman.) Emily is a customer service dynamo who breathes “life” into the AI program, but also has an emerging life as a comedy performer with a Chicago improv group. The couple seem to be happy until they use one another in their work, and the cracks begin to form in their relationship.
I really do champion small, independent films, so I really wanted to like Operator – unfortunately there were just too many things about it that either were completely cliché or just plain boring. There is so little character development that when things happen things seem contrived or just completely out of left field. One of Joe’s big issues is that he has crippling anxiety attacks requiring Emily to physically lay on top of him (yeah, I know) but every other aspect of his personality reads unemotional to the point of robotic that without context, it’s kind of baffling. And Emily’s evolution from doting caretaker to ditching Joe’s incessant phone calls because of her burgeoning comedy career takes about two performances, if we’re to believe the film. And I’m not sure I’ve seen a more awkward moment in recent history than when Starr masturbates to the sound of Emily’s voice through a special program he created within the actual program. It wasn’t edgy or sad or a product of our time – it was just weird.
This is the second thing I’ve seen Martin Starr in, and I’m guessing that unless Joe Larsen is supposed to be his F&G character all grown up with contact lenses, he just really is kind of stilted and awkward. I can’t blame Mae Whitman, who proved that she has the chops with her work in Arrested Development; I just don’t think she had a lot to work with. First time writer and director Logan Kibens built an okay foundation with Operator but just couldn’t deliver a good, fleshed out film. Some plot lines are underdeveloped and dropped completely, like Joe’s mother’s (Christine Lahti) health – which may have actually explained some of his issues – and others are driven into the ground, like Joe’s friend and partner’s obsession with winning back a woman he dated once who told him she was a lesbian. (Again, I know.) While slick looking and well edited, Operator just didn’t have enough substance to it to make it even an average film.