The Good: Funny, Charming, Good characters, Raises awareness to an important issue.
The Bad: Very difficult to get into, Elements that are predictable.
The Basics: Solidly entertaining and educational, Adam explores the life of a young man with Asperger's Syndrome in a heartwarming film.
Sometimes, the advantage of getting into preview screenings is that I can then do my best to steer audiences to a movie that deserves their attention so that it might not actually be the flop virtually everyone predicts it will be. Back in 2009, as the doors closed on Summer Blockbuster Season 2009 the major studios were releasing two inane horror films with the intent of unseating prior weekend's box office leaders, but probably did not crack the top five. The film no one was betting on was Adam.
Having seen Adam early, it is hard to say anything about the film other than "see this, it deserves to be seen." I went into the screening blind (not literally!) and it was only after my wife expressed some trepidation about accompanying me that I even found out that the movie was supposedly a comedy and was a little over an hour and a half long. When the movie was done, my wife and I looked at one another and she asked me, "would you see it again?" Unlike earlier films that summer that might have been better on the merits, like The Soloist (reviewed here!), or movies that were billed as comedies that we did not laugh at, like Observe And Report, Adam was both entertaining and educational AND pleasant enough with characters that were likable. I realized then that I would like to see the film again, despite its awkward beginning.
Adam Raki finds himself standing beside his father's grave after the funeral unsure what to do with his life, other than go home and take over the chores in the apartment the two shared that his father used to do. He continues to go through his days, much as he did before his father's death, eating the same meals and maintaining the apartment and going to work as an electronic engineer for a toy company in Manhattan. Soon after his father's death, a young teacher, Beth, moves into the apartment building and she tries to get to know Adam, despite his awkward tendencies.
After Adam presents Beth with a planetarium show in his apartment and he takes her out to see raccoons in Central Park, Beth becomes smitten and Adam confesses his awkwardness is the result of his Asperger's Syndrome. As Beth copes with her father being indicted for a white collar crime, Adam struggles with finding a new job as he is fired from Replay, Inc. and his father's friend Harlan insists he try to get a job so he can keep the apartment. Beth and Adam work to understand one another and Adam's condition forces Beth to look at the world in a very different way, especially as her father's legal problems mount and her foundation is rocked.
Adam is a wonderfully smart film on so many levels that it is hard not to begin with simply gushing about the movie. Writer and director Max Mayer paces the film in a way that requires some trust on the part of the viewer and those who bear it out are rewarded. Adam seems at its surface to be yet another "awkward man" story where the gimmick is a beautiful young woman falls for a man who is in some way inaccessible. Adam's condition - the Asperger's Syndrome - does not come out for quite some time, so the viewer has to deal with a character who is not quite right, but we're unsure why.
The nice thing about the movie is that Mayer is consistent in his presentation of Adam as a character. As a result, even after he admits he has Asperger's to Beth, he does not suddenly start acting more or less quirky. Instead, Mayer focuses on how Beth changes in her perceptions and treatment of the young man and this leads to some of the film's best lines. Asperger's, which is explained in a little medical lesson midway through the film (clumsily disguised as dialogue between Beth and her boss), has many autism-like symptoms, one of which is a strong literal take on language resulting in an exceptionally honest person. So, this actually leads to some comic gems in Adam, like when Beth tries to explain why her last relationship didn't work (saying things like "he was sleeping with other women while we were together" has a very different meaning when you read it completely literally!).
Adam is funny . . . when it is not being difficult to swallow. Like most films about people who live with states different from "neuro typical" personas (or those with mental illnesses - Asperger's is the former, not the latter!) the inability to relate is often difficult for audiences to watch. In this case, Adam has the occasional outburst which is frustrating and heartwrenching.
From a practical standpoint, though, there are some elements that do not read right. Harlan, Adam's father's best friend and Adam's friend in the wake of his father's passing, seems to know all of the tricks to keep Adam focused and safe. This makes a lot of sense and works beautifully. But the family lawyer does not seem to grasp the concepts and that seems strange, especially when there are moments that make it seem like Adam's father knew his demise was coming. Adam is hit with a lot of legalese from an unfamiliar source and it seems like the father would have familiarized the lawyer with some of that beforehand.
This is offset by any number of details that work exceptionally well for creating the two protagonists. For example, Beth is shown frequently writing in a diary and it was only when seeing her do that that I realized this is something I almost never see in movies, yet is such an important part of many young women's lives. Director Max Mayer also uses sound exceptionally well to help tell the story. Many shots begin with Beth or Adam within their own apartments and we hear the other approach the front door long before they knock. The use of sound creates a very firm sense of place in the New York City apartment.
In fact, the only place the sound is distracting is in the soundtrack. As an avid fan of Lost, the main theme in Adam is way too derivative of the recurring theme (for fans of Lost, it's the soft theme they play whenever a main character died in the early seasons) from Lost. That said, it still fits the quirky movie and it comes in on moments that have a melancholy feel to them, so it works, even with the derivative associations.
What makes Adam work ultimately is the fact that all of the characters are played masterfully. First, the supporting cast is chosen for a look and acting quality that makes them all seem real, not like characters on the big screen. Frankie Faison (Harlan) is the everyman and he has a casual delivery of his lines that makes him seem like the average audience member. Amy Irving appears frazzled and frumpy in virtually all of her scenes, though she solidly delivers as Beth's mother. And even Peter Gallagher does not seem like a Hollywood beautiful man all of a sudden and his performance masterfully recreates the archetype of the businessman.
No one has to earn their credit in Adam like Rose Byrne, who plays Beth. The moment Adam begins with a voice-over - which sets up a parallel between "The Little Prince" and the film - my stomach sank; I'm sick of movies that feel the need to tell as opposed to using the medium well and showing us what we're supposed to see. But Mayer limits the voice-over to one and Rose Byrne carries the emotional weight of the audience extraordinarily well as Beth. Beth is put in the same place as the audience; she does not understand Adam and yet she is interested in him. Byrne's Beth warms up to Adam at about the same pace as the audience and she slowly adapts to having the difficult man in her life and we feel for her because Byrne so adeptly illustrates shock and confusion on her face at all of the right moments.
Hugh Dancy plays Adam Raki and no doubt as the mainstream press starts reviewing Adam there will be comparisons between Dancy and Sean Penn's performance in I Am Sam (reviewed here!). Those comparisons are apt analogies because Dancy appears on screen entirely invested in the role. However, Dancy's acting is equally likely to make him the next Patrick Dempsey. Dempsey played a paranoid schizophrenic for a good run in the second season of Once & Again (reviewed here!) and Dancy's portrayal of Adam reminded me instantly of that. Dancy's body language is extraordinary as he carries Adam with a stiffness - especially in the arms and legs - that is distinctive and memorable. He owns this movie!
Ultimately, Adam is sweet, smart and surprisingly has a few twists to it that make it one of the last pleasant surprises of the year in American cinema. And it is funny (not just in awkward ways) which puts it above most comedies I've seen this year. It's never too early for smart, compelling films and Adam certainly qualifies.
For other works with Hugh Dancy, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Confessions Of A Shopaholic
Blood And Chocolate
For other film reviews, check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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