Running time 99 minutes
Written and directed by Max Mayer
Starring Hugh Dancy, Rose Byrne, Peter Gallagher, Amy Irving
Charm that isn’t forced and wit without contrivance are such rare ingredients in today’s so-called comedies that when I come across either, I tend to go overboard. There is plenty of both in Adam, a touching and engaging film about a likable and attractive young man who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. Now there’s a fresh subject guaranteed to stir debate. And a riveting performance by the gifted Hugh Dancy in the title role is just the thing to shake and stir it.
Far from just another exotic Disease of the Week, Asperger’s is an incurable neurological disorder similar to autism that turns outwardly normal-looking people into high-class idiot savants. I know at least two people with Asperger’s. They are incapable of thinking of anyone or anything outside of themselves. Challenged by social interactions and given to obsessive routines that revolve around a single subject of interest, they do not like to be touched, they feel incapable of explaining things and they cannot cope with people in general. Emotionally blocked, they say things that hurt and sting without meaning to be rude, and are weak at understanding, receiving or exchanging the emotions of others. They cannot look you in the eye. Adam is a fascinating study of a rare affliction in which all of these qualities are evident, in carefully researched scenes that are humorous and touching. It is lethal to get involved romantically with any person with Asperger’s syndrome, since they care nothing about other people’s feelings, needs or priorities. Almost without exception, they leave you perplexed, riddled with doubt and totally depressed.
Adam is a brilliant, handsome, 29-year-old electronics engineer who loses his job as a toy designer after the death of his beloved father and now fears losing his apartment unless he can find a way to pay the mortgage. This is a daunting task since Adam doesn’t have a clue how to behave on a job interview. His alarmingly empty life is so devoid of passion that he can go to a funeral and feel nothing. His kitchen cupboard is stocked with rows of boxes containing only macaroni and cheese. Adam designs toys but his real interest is astronomy. He requires an enormous amount of care and patience, which his new upstairs neighbor, Beth (Rose Byrne), discovers the hard way. Beth is an elementary-school teacher who takes it upon herself to mentor Adam as potential husband material and gets more than she bargained for. Adam can babble incessantly on galaxies, the speed of light and the expansion of the universe, but he doesn’t know the first thing about a good-night kiss. Beth knows his relationship skills are dim, but she’s attracted to him anyway, especially after he builds enough trust to show her the private planetarium he has designed from scratch in his New York bachelor flat. In their private world, safe as a hermetically sealed jar, friendship is hard, and sexual intimacy is impossible. It doesn’t take long for the romance to hit the shoals, but the characters persevere. Adam even summons a determination and a will he never knew he had, finding his way to Beth’s family home in Westchester in a snowstorm, only to be forced to confront the disapproval of her parents (Amy Irving and Peter Gallagher), who preferred the stability of their daughter’s former fiancé, an investment banker. The film veers off course with a subplot about the father’s trial for a corporate crime that is never fully specified. At best, this scandal seems inserted for no other purpose than to shock Adam into the realization that he is no longer Beth’s sole priority. She’s worked overtime to help him find his hidden self-confidence, but when she faces her own dilemma, Adam cannot empathize, he can only imitate.
Eschewing spoiler alerts, I will simply say Adam faces the ultimate test of his ability to surmount the perils of Asperger’s when he is at last offered the perfect job, in a conservatory in California. Can he cope with a new environment, new people and a new life? Will Beth go with him? She loves him, but what’s in it for her? How they work it out makes for one of the warmest and most satisfying films of the year. The presumption that a handsome man can be either brainy or bountiful with his emotions, but not both, is a bit primitive, but writer-director Max Mayer makes everything believable. His guidance is mature, steady and without artifice—and the settings cover a wide variety of wonderful New York locations, from the Upper West Side restaurant Cesca to the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village. The movie has tenderness to spare, thanks largely to a subtle, endearing and naturalistic performance by Mr. Dancy. A British actor on his way to superstardom, he has range and discipline, and his American accent is perfect. (Ms. Byrne is equally good; she sounds so much like a New York native that you’d never believe she’s from Australia.) Mr. Dancy is always prettier than his leading ladies, but it doesn’t impede his power. Even in films that are flawed (like Evening and The Jane Austen Book Club), his craft and versatility overwhelm. He’s not everyone’s model of the perfect Mr. Right, like Hugh Jackman, but he seems to have untapped dimensions of sensitivity that are far more intriguing. Adam is, at last, a movie that deserves him.