Relentlessly Romantic

'Adam' ** 1/2 (2 1/2 Stars)

Director's Love-by-the-numbers Approach Drains This Dramedy

August 21, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,

"Adam" is a young-adult fantasy disguised as an offbeat romance between a man who has Asperger's syndrome, Adam Raki (Hugh Dancy), and a kindergarten teacher, Beth Buchwald (Rose Byrne), who loves him body and soul. It could have been a contender as a single-character study of Adam. As a two-hander - and a romantic dramedy, at that - it's alternately precious and awkward.

The film rouses hope with its inspired, emotional stage-setting. The action begins with the death of Adam's father. This brisk, unsettling sequence climaxes with Adam wiping "Dad's chores" from the refrigerator calendar. You immediately sense that Adam's emotions have been locked in a tragicomic struggle with his need for routine.

But when Beth, a new neighbor in his Manhattan condo building, begins to share center-screen with him, the film's contrivance gets in the way of its distinctive seriocomic flavor. It's no wonder she finds Adam's tunnel-vision and blunt candor refreshing. The writer-director, Max Mayer, supplies Beth with a troubled romantic history and a dad who's a duplicitous charmer. Adam offers relief. And when he turns his condo into a planetarium or introduces her to the raccoons of Central Park, he triggers her own whimsy and sense of wonder. Beth doesn't only teach 5-year-olds; we learn that she also writes children's books.

You can see the movie build on their attraction as if with Lego blocks. Did Mayer lose his nerve? Did he wrongheadedly set out to make the affair seem completely inevitable? Love always takes people by surprise. The movie would be better if Mayer didn't prepare Beth for romance so punctiliously. Byrne proves to be a remarkable, delicate performer, but she can't dispel the movie's crippling aura of creative self-consciousness. In the film's midsection, Beth turns Adam into the least threatening, most accommodating lover imaginable. "Adam" offers a schoolgirl's vision of sweet, uncomplicated sexuality, which Beth controls as clearly and commandingly as a stoplight, before reality asserts itself.

The waste is, the movie didn't need to be so darn "twee." Everything Mayer does with Adam alone is fresh and confident. He derives humor as well as suspense from an audience's concern over what will happen when Adam exhausts his neatly assembled supplies of macaroni-and-cheese dinners or clean clothes. Adam is an appealing figure. He's socially at sea, incapable of picking up nonverbal cues and indirect signals. Yet he's also consistent, honest, and willing to test his boundaries with anyone willing to take a chance on him. And with Dancy, Mayer has an actor who can go deep into a recessive character and still signal his internal complexities. Without becoming uncharacteristically expressive, he's able to adjust his intensity from moment to moment, so you read him like an emotional thermometer.

Mayer doesn't mistake handicaps for limitations: He gives Adam outlets for creativity and imagination with his love for astronomy and his job as a microchip developer for a toy company. Indeed, Adam loses his paycheck because, unlike his employer, he values invention over cost. A movie based solely on his quest to find a new way to make a living and maintain his condo might have proved consistently compelling and then haunting.

Considering how subtly yet relentlessly manipulative much of this movie can be, the honest, sensitive finale comes as a welcome revelation. The climax and epilogue are the juiciest, most tough-minded bits in the movie. Too bad Mayer didn't work his way backward from the end.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, sexual content and language)

Running time: 1:39

Starring Hugh Dancy (Adam Raki), Rose Byrne (Beth Buchwald), Peter Gallagher (Marty Buchwald , Amy Irving (Rebecca Buchwald) and Frankie Faison (Harlan).

A Fox Searchlight Release. Directed by Max Mayer.

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