This movie may be a little too cute and a little too pat and a little bit lacking in the style department. It may rely way too much on its bland indie-pop sound track to prop up the drama, but Max Mayer’s Adam is an undeniably pleasant film about an unusual subject that just happens to be topped off by a really good performance from the massively underrated Hugh Dancy in the title role of a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome.
I realize that simply saying that the movie focuses on a young man with a mental condition may be enough to send sage readers scurrying about the room looking for large pieces of furniture to hide behind. That’s understandable enough, since the cinematic woods are littered with (presumably) well-intended movies starring actors who think the road to Oscar’s heart is through this kind of role. (See Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder from last summer.) And there’s no denying that there’s a bit of that here, but Dancy is good enough that it never seems like the posturing that so often comes with the movies’ love affair with mental problems. Dancy offers a subtle performance that works as much in small touches as in the predictable bigger “outburst” moments. It’s perhaps the nature of Asperger’s Syndrome, which at its mildest can seem like little more than a lack of the censorship mechanism in the brain that causes brutal honesty to take the place of social skills.
Adam approaches its story a little differently than most such movies in that it is put forth—and constructed—in terms of a romantic comedy. Adam Ranki is a fellow in his late 20s whose father has just died, leaving him alone in a comfortable and comfortably spacious New York City apartment. It’s a situation that Adam approaches in the most matter-of-fact manner imaginable—by simply marking through the words “Dad’s chores” on the to-do list attached to the refrigerator. Adam seems perfectly settled into his routine with his job as an electronics engineer (designing talking dolls) and his ordered existence. That changes, however, when a pretty girl, Beth Buchwald (Rose Byrne, Sunshine), moves into his building and shows an interest in him.
Beth notices that Adam is more than a little different. The very fact that he’s utterly clueless when she drops heavy hints that he might offer to help her carry in her groceries makes that apparent. But he’s also nice, interesting and—let’s face it—drop-dead gorgeous. She is not, however, prepared for his bluntness. Early on he simply asks her if she was sexually aroused when they went somewhere because, he admits, he was. His explanation of having Asperger’s mollifies her sufficiently to cause her to research exactly what the condition is, and a relationship follows. The crux of all this is whether or not such a relationship can work.
The film might have been wiser to leave things at this level, but instead it complicates matters by bringing in a secondary plot about Beth’s father, Marty (Peter Gallagher), and an impending trial over whether or not he doctored some account books in order to make it look like a co-worker’s job performance was better than it was. Writer-director Mayer clearly wanted to create a kind of parallel story about trust and trials with this. Marty’s literal trial is even intercut with Adam’s figurative one after Adam loses his job and goes on an interview for a new one. It works cinematically, but it’s on the wobbly side in terms of drama and feels forced.
While there’s no denying that Adam has its share of problems, its charms and sense of humanity—especially in Dancy’s performance—tend to overcome most of them, at least in broad terms. Occasionally, the film even works in more specific ways, too. Any movie that manages to convey a touching sense of true character growth that’s grounded in nothing more than an offer to help someone carry something is doing something a lot more right than not. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, sexual content and language.