'Adam': A Different Kind of Love
By Dan Kois
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, Aug. 7, 2009
The engaging romance "Adam," a prizewinner at this year's Sundance Film Festival, starts with a puzzle at its center, a mystery that preschool teacher Beth Buchwald (Rose Byrne) is trying, along with the film's audience, to solve.
Just out of a disastrous relationship, Beth has moved into a new apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and she's interested in the cute guy on the second floor (Hugh Dancy) -- the one who seems just a little bit off, who looks nervous and lost during casual conversation but who can expound rapturously (if nerdily) on astrophysics. What's up with Adam? Is he a garden-variety New York eccentric? Is he that curious subspecies, the Quirky Sundance Man-child? Or is there something else going on?
As Beth learns after a spectacularly uncomfortable conversation ("Were you sexually excited when we walked in the park?" Adam asks), Adam has Asperger's syndrome, which in his case renders him unable to empathize, to understand what other people are feeling. Adam's own emotions, as portrayed by Dancy, are dulled, but his attention to detail is sharp, which makes him an excellent electrical engineer (albeit one who doesn't exactly excel at water-cooler chatter).
Recently laid off, and having just buried his supportive dad in an outer-borough cemetery -- "He's in Queens," he tells Beth when she asks about his father -- Adam is at loose ends, unable to face leaving the pricey apartment he's lived in forever but terrified to find another job. The movie observes from a respectful distance as he and Beth cautiously build a relationship.
"Adam" hinges on the believability of Beth and Adam's connection, which poses a problem when Beth is played by an actress as attractive and appealing as Byrne. Dancy, a dreamboat, plays Adam as a very nice guy, but even Beth admits to her boss that Adam's "not prime relationship material," and audiences might well wonder what she's doing with him.
In anticipation of the question, writer-director Max Mayer spends as much time investigating Beth's personality as he does his hero's quirks. Beth finds Adam's compulsive truth-telling -- he's unable to understand why anyone would ever say something they don't mean -- a refreshing change from her last boyfriend's deceit. And Adam is a safe rebound guy: sweet and almost sexless, or at least willing to go along with Beth's request that sex stay out of the picture as their affair develops.
Meanwhile, Beth's high-toned accountant father, Marty (Peter Gallagher), is under indictment for fraud, and secrets revealed at his trial further damage Beth's ability to trust. In many ways, "Adam" is reminiscent of another movie about a woman who learns her father isn't infallible while she's being courted by an inward-focused, intense young man. Think of "Adam" as "Say Anything" if Lloyd Dobler were even more antisocial.
As in "Say Anything," the heroine of "Adam" is allowed to be realistically selfish and troubled at times, and Byrne's performance makes Beth's weaknesses as real as her strengths. Dating a man without visible emotions makes it easier for Beth to be cruel to him in a way that she might never be with a boyfriend who wasn't an "aspie" (as Adam calls himself). And when a minor betrayal blows up in her face -- people with Asperger's, the film suggests, have a real problem with the concept of white lies -- Beth discovers she's more like her father than she would have guessed.
Dancy -- who's spent the past few years playing the plummy love interest in such chick flicks as "Confessions of a Shopaholic" and "The Jane Austen Book Club" -- gives a game performance in the title role. Is he authentically Aspergian? I have no idea. Did I believe in him throughout? Yes. Adam's a different kind of romantic hero, as far from the debonair courtiers of yesteryear as he is from the verbally dexterous goofuses of a Judd Apatow comedy. (He does share with the average Seth Rogen character an inability to fully embrace adulthood, but at least Adam's developmental delay is neurological in origin.)
As in every movie about a character with a cognitive difference, "Adam" must serve as a primer for audience members on its hero's condition. "Adam" handles its instructional-video moments gracefully, benefiting from the fact that Adam himself can narrate his syndrome in real time to Beth. Asperger's is just one of several topics he's studied and about which he's ready to hold forth, just like astronomy or electrical engineering or the lives of Central Park raccoons. ("They don't really belong here," he says admiringly to Beth late one night in the park, "but there they are.")
At its best, "Adam" makes the viewer understand the frustration of living in a world in which everyone is a stranger -- not least by making us work as hard to understand its hero's feelings as Adam himself must work to understand Beth's.
Contains thematic material, sexual content and language.