Adam (United States, 2009)July 28, 2009
Under the best of circumstances, a relationship demands work and nurturing. Like a plant, it must be carefully tended after it sprouts and guided to maturity. Neglect can cause it to wither or become stunted or overgrown. Adam chronicles the relationship between a "normal" woman and a man with Asperger's Syndrome. With relatively few concessions to melodrama, Max Mayer's film explores the unique pressures put upon a relationship when the participants are not so much mismatched in terms of socio-economic standing or race but in the manner in which their minds process information. Those with Asperger's, a form of high-functioning autism, look at the world in ways that are fundamentally different. Although they can function normally in society, their differences can often seem like defining characteristics.
Adam Raki (Hugh Dancy) is coping with the death of his father as many Aspberger's individuals handle unwelcome lifestyle changes: by sticking to a schedule. This includes following a safe, comfortable routine on a daily basis: waking up, eating the same breakfast, going to work, coming home from work, consuming macaroni and cheese for dinner, and going to bed. Adam's regimented schedule is interrupted when Beth Buchwald (Rose Byrne) moves into an apartment upstairs. Initially, Adam does what he does with all external changes and ignores them, but circumstances conspire to make that impossible. For her part, Beth finds Adam intriguing. They form a friendship that becomes more than a friendship, but being romantically involved with someone with Asperger's is not an easy task, and Beth must evaluate whether what she has with Adam is settled upon a firm enough foundation to survive the emotional storms - both his and hers - that buffet it.
The easiest way to tell this story would be to resort to stereotypes and short-cuts and, to his credit, Mayer largely avoids these. He establishes Adam as a real person, not a Rain Man substitute. He is socially inept, but not a misfit. He has a tendency to ramble on when a subject interests him, but that's because he's unable to read cues that his audience might not be interested. And he asks questions that might be considered awkward because he has no other way of determining the answers. (Those with Asperger's are generally poor at reading body language.) He is not dumb or emotionally stunted. He can make jokes - witness his comment about not being Forrest Gump when he is presented with a box of chocolates. There is one over-the-top outburst that seems out of character, but it's the exception rather than the rule. Most importantly, Adam gets the particulars of the relationship right. Everyday "infractions" that seem like nothing to Beth can be major issues for Adam, and vice versa. In a real sense, they are living in separate worlds, and it takes a herculean effort to breach the divide between them. Adam blends light comedy and romance with pathos, but remains grounded enough to avoid becoming a tear-jerker. This is not some three-hankie soap opera about a caring woman whose love for a man gives her the courage to see past his faults. There are times when Beth loses patience with Adam and instances in which his obstinance would drive away anyone. The film sugar coats nothing, including (most importantly) the ending.
The tendency for an actor in a role like this is to overact. The result is often disastrous, reducing a character into a caricature. Hugh Dancy, adopting an American accent as effectively as the mannerisms of someone on the moderate portion of the Asperger's spectrum, makes Adam believable and generally sympathetic. We may not fully understand all of the impulses that drive him, but we "get" the character. He's neither incomprehensible nor oversimplified. Meanwhile, Rose Byrne avoids slipping into Dancy's shadow. Her Beth is a well-realized individual with her own fears and hopes and aspirations. She becomes neither a secondary character nor a mere "love interest." Her interaction with Dancy is effective although, due to the nature of the relationship, their chemistry is more complex than what one normally encounters in romantic movies. Peter Gallagher and Amy Irving provide support as Beth's parents, although the inclusion of a subplot involving his crooked business dealings feels forced. Frankie Faison is Harlan, Adam's friend and mentor. (They have an amusing scene in which they discuss what constitutes an appropriate lunch-break topic for discussion.)
After a spate of contrived, formulaic romances, Adam seems more fresh and absorbing than it might have under different circumstances. In the end, the movie is more about growth and courage than it is about love. It's about being able to take a step even when that step may feel like walking off the edge of an abyss. Adam does not leave us hanging; there's a tidy epilogue that ties up loose ends and, even though it may not offer the perfect fairy tale resolution that some in the audience will be desirous of, it concludes on a hopeful note. Adam is still perhaps a little too rosy to be considered "realistic" (would a woman this beautiful really fall for a guy this awkward?), but, like the indie romance Once, it doesn't feel like a mishmash of Hollywood contrivances that is fully dependent upon actor chemistry to succeed. Also like Once, music is an important component. Adam is neither as quirky nor as tightly scripted as (500) Days of Summer, but the two in concert provide effective counterprogramming to the likes of The Answer Man and The Ugly Truth. This is an affirmation that it's still possible to find smart movies about one of the most basic aspects of the human experience: falling in love.
Adam (United States, 2009)
Cast: Hugh Dancy, Rose Byrne, Peter Gallagher, Amy Irving, Frankie Faison
Screenplay: Max Mayer
Cinematography: Seamus Tierney
Music: Christopher Lennertz
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight