Friday, August 28, 2009

Adam: Tender beginnings

Adam (2009) • View trailer for Adam
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for brief profanity and mild sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.28.09
Buy DVD: Adam

Advocacy cinema takes many forms, the most effective examples often arriving stealthily, as quiet, consciousness-raising little dramas that call attention to disenfranchised members of society.

Writer/director Max Mayer's Adam is just such a film: a sweet, poignant character study about a young man with Asperger's Syndrome  a form of high-functioning autism  and a sympathetic young woman who falls in love with him, and attempts to expand his sheltered, withdrawn lifestyle.
Unless confronted directly, Adam (Hugh Dancy) prefers to ignore other people,
having learned that he frequently misinterprets what they say. This initially
puzzles Beth (Rose Byrne), but she gradually discovers that an honest soul
lurks beneath her neighbor's reserved exterior.

The film is being marketed as a romantic comedy, which seems misleading; although certainly laced with amusing moments  most derived from the title character's tendency to take statements and actions at face value  Mayer's script is rather too serious to be lumped with inconsequential fluff such as The Proposal.

But calling Adam a sensitive "message movie" probably would be the box-office kiss of death, so I can't really fault Fox Searchlight's approach.

For the most part, and especially when he concentrates on his story's two primary characters, Mayer's film is thoughtful, absorbing, poignant and gently informative: a clearly sympathetic portrait of a man trying his best to cope with a condition that makes him utterly helpless in social and interpersonal situations, which the rest of us casually take for granted.

At times, though, Mayer's tone is disrupted by the intrusion of a secondary plot line  and the needlessly over-the-top performance of a supporting actor  that are unnecessary and out of place, and rip us right out of the core narrative.

I find this mis-match surprising for an individual (Mayer) who has directed more than 50 new plays Off-Broadway and around the country, and is a veteran director for TV shows such as Alias and The West Wing. I'd expect Mayer to have a better understanding of balance, and recognize how he damages his otherwise delicate film with occasional "Hollywoodizing" elements.

Fortunately, most everything else pales alongside the excellent work of Hugh Dancy (The Jane Austen Book Club, Confessions of a Shopaholic), who delivers as carefully shaded a performance as I've seen since Cliff Robertson (Charly) or Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man).

We meet Adam (Dancy) during the quiet montage that opens this film, as the young man watches his father being buried, and then returns to the largish Manhattan apartment the two apparently had shared for quite some time. The hallmarks of Adam's condition are introduced casually: clothes impeccably hung in the closet; identical boxes of frozen macaroni TV dinners neatly lined up in the freezer; the careful precision with which he always sits the same way while eating; a calendar divided into "Adam's chores" and "Dad's chores," and the sad, silent expression with which Adam crosses off the latter.

As opening scenes come, this one's just about as powerful as that which detailed the old man's entire life at the beginning of Up: a wordless depiction of a carefully constructed life torn asunder. And it's about to get worse, as those frozen dinners vanish ... and aren't replaced.

Adam is ferociously brilliant, and has a job constructing wonderfully intricate electronic toys; Asperger's Syndrome does not denote lack of intelligence, but instead is an inability to "read" other people, and to regard ordinary human behavior as strange, irrational and even wildly incomprehensible. He'll happily chatter away about telescopes, outer space, architectural history or any other subject that has attracted him; the problem is that he lacks the expertise to sense when he has rattled on too long.

Adam has one friend, Harlan (Frankie Faison), actually his father's war buddy, who  we presume  helps out as much as possible. Mostly, though, Adam has led a carefully sheltered life that was possible with his father's guidance.

But now...?

The dynamic changes when Beth (Rose Byrne), a schoolteacher, moves into an adjacent apartment. At first puzzled by her unusual neighbor, she eventually sees past his surface eccentricities and perceives the warm-hearted, if utterly lost, soul within. Beth, on the rebound from a relationship that crumbled because her ex lied and cheated on her, finds Adam's ingenuous honesty a breath of fresh air.

Friendship blossoms into something stronger; where that will  can  lead is the crux of Mayer's story.

Tension arrives for both characters: Adam loses his job, and the means the support himself; Beth's father (Peter Gallagher, as Marty) gradually reveals that he's about to be hauled into court for irregular financial activity that he dismisses as a mistake soon to be corrected.

Beth's parents, it should be mentioned  Amy Irving plays her mother, Rebecca  are quite wealthy, and Mayer never makes a big deal out of the fact that their daughter clearly is rebelling a bit against the atmosphere of aristocratic largess in which she grew up.

I like that sort of narrative subtlety; it shows that Mayer trusts his audience.

Why, then, he allows Gallagher to ham it up so badly  to be such a blatantly obvious parody of a Wall Street hustler  remains a mystery. Dancy, Byrne and even Irving deliver the sort of intimate stage drama with which Mayer no doubt is quite familiar; Gallagher, in obnoxious contrast, has the exaggerated manner and body language of an insecure first-timer trying to reach the last row of the second balcony. He damn near ruins this film.

Fortunately, the relationships between Adam and Beth  and, to a lesser degree, between Adam and Harlan, and Beth and her mother  carry the day.

Byrne projects instinctive compassion and just enough vulnerability to make Beth's growing attachment to Adam persuasive; she also conveys the rising concern of a daughter becoming convinced that her father might be some sort of crook. Byrne's chemistry with Dancy is strong, and we take our cues from her, when it comes to Adam's behavior; she lets us know when it's all right to laugh with him, and sympathetically chuckle when  as often happens  he responds warily to a common idiomatic expression that means quite the opposite of what is heard.

(One does not say something like "I could eat a horse" around an individual with Asperger's Syndrome.)

It's important to mention that Mayer carefully ensures that his script's funnier moments come with Adam's participation: We laugh with him, not at him. That's an important distinction, and I applaud Mayer's perception and sensitivity.

On the other hand, Mayer slips up a few times. We never do learn how Adam gets his groceries re-stocked: whether, for example, Harlan or Beth starts shopping for him. (Although it's reasonable to believe that Adam could learn to wash his clothes himself  the apartment complex's laundry room is downstairs, within his same sheltering building  it's too much to believe that somebody with Asperger's Syndrome suddenly could navigate the complexities of a supermarket.)

The reading of Adam's father's will, in his lawyer's office, is oddly out of synch: A careless suggestion by the attorney precipitates a very believable meltdown, and Dancy really nails this scene. The problem lies with the character of the lawyer, who  most certainly having watched Adam grow up, after having represented this family unit for a time  simply wouldn't be that thoughtless.

And when Beth finally coaxes Adam to join her for dinner out at a restaurant, why in God's name would she be stupid enough to select a place whose staff and clientele are masked and garbed for some sort of Halloween celebration, thus exponentially increasing poor Adam's discomfort? Hell, I'd have been ill at ease in that place!

OK, perhaps such scenes are Mayer's way of demonstrating that even well-meaning people can make mistakes that can have serious consequences for somebody with Asperger's Syndrome. We try our best; we stumble; we learn and do better next time. All right, maybe ... but the aforementioned sequences still feel wrong.

That said, Dancy's strong performance ensures that we never lose sight of the story's primary objective: the need for Adam to make some sort of real progress, to achieve some sort of inner peace. From the opening scene to the film's quite reasonable conclusion, we're always firmly in his corner.

And yes, we come away with heightened awareness, and  one hopes  greater sympathy for folks who don't fit in.

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