By Michael Koresky
Dir. Max Mayer, U.S., Fox Searchlight
It’s hard to imagine a receptive audience for Max Mayer’s Adam as anyone other than moony-eyed thirteen-year-old girls—not that Fox Searchlight would ever admit that this should be its target demographic. It’s an unimaginably precious retread of that most ubiquitous of rom-com plots, in which a troubled, misunderstood man comes out of his shell to earn the love of a beautiful, understanding young woman, but this one comes with an even more inflated sense of itself: this, after all, presumes to be an authentic look at the daily difficulties of functioning with Asperger’s Syndrome. And perhaps that’s where it started, in outline form, years ago. But in the transition to the screen, after going through industry cogs and gears, this Sundance-approved “charmer” has been squeezed out on the other side as something utterly prefab, a false facsimile of how people act in movie-land, a copy of a copy of human behavior. There isn’t a single shot or performance that feels honest, or that registers as anything other than passionless fodder for its players’ future highlight reels. (Is it just me, or is the “indie” branch of Fox singularly talented at searching out the least genuine, most contrived shitpiles in any given year? How do they do it?)
So why continue writing this review, or reading this review for that matter? Perhaps we can look at it as a cautionary tale, for its makers and potential viewers. It doesn’t take long to sniff out what kind of a movie we’re going to be watching (i.e., self-consciously whimsical and potentially sexist…jackpot!); right from the opening credits we get a bit of narration, from a female voice lullabying to us that The Little Prince is her favorite story, and that in considering Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s allegory, “I always thought I was the prince, but after I met Adam I realized I was the pilot all along.” In other words, this young man, this “prince,” this autistic, misunderstood boy-child, had so much to teach her, and in the ensuing film will have so much to teach us. Groan, slink down in your seat, there’s still 100 minutes to go.
To start from a childlike point of view turns out to a wholly appropriate tactic for a film that proceeds to treat its viewers like seven-year-olds. The film begins right when the obviously troubled thirty-something New Yorker Adam (Brit cutie Hugh Dancy, the ne plus ultra of inoffensive puppy-eyed manhood) has lost his father and final living parent, which is handily related to us when Adam, silently returning home after the funeral to his now-too-big-for-one brownstone floor, crosses out DAD’S CHORES on the fridge with a fat, red sharpee. Mayer continues to lay it on thicker than spackle with his thudding visual storytelling: rows of symmetrical Amy’s Organic Mac and Cheese boxes disappear one by one from the shelf—a convenient and patronizing way of showing time passing and establishing Adam’s stultifying routine and obsessive-compulsive need for uniformity. Underlying it all are the coddling strains of a faux–Thomas Newman score—processed cheese, indeed, is the order of the day.
Soon enough we meet the Little Princess herself, Beth (Australian actress Rose Byrne), wide-eyed and, I would venture, anorexic (though that’s a disease for another movie-of-the-week), who moves into the apartment below and immediately takes a hesitant liking to the mystery man upstairs, who with his kindness, dreamboy looks, and paralytic introversion must seem like a hell of a catch. He’s even got a cute job, as . . . wait for it . . . an electronic toymaker. Immediately, and improbably, she invites him out with her friends, although his social anxiety gets the better of him and he stays behind, leaving Beth to knock on his door later that night, presumably to see if she can do anything to single-handedly assuage the pain of living. When he opens the door, rather than a confessional, Beth walks into a makeshift planetarium projected onto his ceiling; plaintive piano plays as she looks up, awestruck not just by the vastness of space, but by the sheer depths of feeling and knowledge in this extraterrestrial we call Adam. Dancy grins. Beth gets teary. Audiences vomit.
Obviously, at this point, the film doesn’t require any more formal synopsizing to enumerate its idiocies; the cleverest among you will have already run for the hills. No need to delve into, for example, the sub–Say Anything daddy issues Beth has with her corporate accountant father (Peter Gallagher, in prime sleazeball mode, which is to say, enormously unappealing), which lead into a ponderous subplot in which he’s put on trial for some book-cooking; no possible reason you should know about the hilariously arch party scenes, full of hilariously heightened ADR work, featuring Beth’s chic lesbian friends showing off their Chinese baby and discussing Islam; and you’ll certainly thank me later for sparing the details of Adam’s single friendship, his only confidante being a sassy African-American deliveryman named Harlan (Frankie Faison of The Wire), always ready with a quip.
Instead I’ll just mention how increasingly enervating it is to witness the perpetuating trend of American roles given to foreign actors, not necessarily because of the untapped local talent we have right here in our own backyard (especially for a New York story such as this one) but also because Dancy and Byrne, with serviceable but chewy American accents, are never completely convincing. Our eyes get incontrovertibly drawn to Dancy’s mouth as he wraps his lips tensely around every word, as if he’s grinding on gum while delivering lines; and Byrne’s hangdog mannerisms seem more put-on than lived-in. Ultimately their performances feel like acting exercises, challenges for their own careers rather than credible, full-bodied characters—how fitting then that one of the superhuman symptoms of Adam’s autism is his memorization of Inside the Actor’s Studio episodes.
Most offensive though is the film’s self-righteousness as a work of advocacy. It’s clear that Mayer takes this disorder seriously, as well he should, and that at one point perhaps this was a passion project. When Beth finds out Adam’s diagnosis (“I have this thing, it’s called Asperger’s Syndrome,” he blatantly states), she asks a fellow teacher, who proceeds to explain it to her, and us, as “high functioning autism” before handing her stacks of reading material plucked magically from her school shelf (“Here’s a book: Pretending to Be Normal!”). Didacticism aside, considering the presumed good intentions, it’s particularly galling that Adam is ultimately represented as whimsical and wondrous rather than challenged and resilient. Despite one telegraphed “scary” outburst—culminating in a bad head-smashing into the mirror, followed by a single trickle of blood down his forehead, lit just so—he constantly does uncomprehendingly adorable things that movies usually reserve for animatrons or starmen, often accompanied by wimp-rock interludes. See Adam showing Beth the beauties of the world by taking her on “raccoon watches” in Central Park (which inexplicably makes her jaw drop with joy and surprise), committing a school playground faux pas (“I’m watching the children,” he confusedly intones to questioning cops, who almost arrest him—cue alarming handheld camera!), or saying Gumpian things to Beth like “I can see you’re upset, but I don’t know what to do!” The nadir of Adam’s “charming” behavior is when, accompanied by the soundtrack’s infernal xylophone diddling, he dons an astronaut outfit and dangles in front of Beth’s window with a wiper. Is this a drama about an actual affliction or Bicentennial Man?
Such an outpouring of falseness doesn’t do him, or us, any favors. In fact, Adam is exploitation, pure and simple, using a disorder many struggle with daily to buoy something wretchedly conventional, and counting on the idiocy of audiences to swallow it. Don’t let them take advantage.