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Max Mayer

Adam is a sweet motion picture about an Aspie — a boy with Asperger's. Thanks to an intelligent screenplay and first-rate acting by a very talented cast, Adam is also a moving film, at least until it blows off our sympathy with a cute but tacky finish. The only question is whether Adam is just a movie-of-the-week with a bigger budget and Hugh Dancy.

What difference does it make? What's wrong with a good movie of the week?

Do they still make movies-of-the-week? I certainly never saw enough of them to have anything interesting to say about them. But I understand that they were frequently focused on diseases — on how victims coped. There seems to have been a formula that would perk up a conventional drama of love and loss by introducing fait divers, stories from the news. Boy meets girl, but girl is bulimic.

There is a big difference between a film about two lovers and a film about the way in which disease interferes with love. You might call it the difference between freedom and predestination. Vibrantly engaging characters can suffer from diseases, but when their suffering monopolizes the focus, vibrant engagement is precluded. Is Adam about Adam, or is it about his Asperger's?

The answer does not lie in the screenplay, or in the way that dramatic situations have been interwoven. The answer lies in Hugh Dancy's body. In his face, for the most part, but also in the way in which he carries himself. Only the body can assure us that it is really inhabited by what, for the sake of convenience, we'll call a soul. The challenge comes down to this: how to express the inability to express. Mr Dancy is definitely up to the job. He even teaches us a thing or two that we might not have known about Asperger's. When pretty women pass by, Adam leers at them, but his leer is self-protectively shuttered. His longing has been disciplined (the hard way, no doubt) to remain in his eyes. We see how much work everyday life must be for this man, and how vinegary the the cup of resignation must be. But although the soul of Adam Raki flickers in the actor's eyes, I am not persuaded that Hugh Dancy has been given sufficient opportunity to work the necessary magic. It is possible that Adam gives him only enough room for the demonstration of his acting chops, which, while major, have already been established.

Now, I am not saying that the movie is unsuccessful in this regard, but only that I'm not sure.

The conventional drama on which Adam has been constructed involves the disillusionment of a beautiful and trusting daughter (Rose Byrne) by her charming but dishonest father (Peter Gallagher). There is, of course, an indication that Beth Buchwald is ready to be disabused; she has just broken up with a protégé of her father's, upon learning that he sleeps around, and now she's ready for something completely different — Adam. Dad is predictably unimpressed, to put it mildly, and the movie builds up a good head of dramatic irony as we ponder the nerve of a schnook who's too proud to see his daughter happy in the arms of a handicapped man. Adam, meanwhile, must deal with the family breakdown that ensues when the father is sentenced to a year in jail: he must, specifically, stand up for Beth. And he does so, manfully. He leads Beth away from her suburban family home, back to the building in Manhattan where they live in nearby flats.

Then what?

A truly mediocre picture would finish on a note of romantic triumph, and Adam and Beth settled down to a life full of minor misunderstandings. Adam has the honor to caution Beth against staying with Adam just because he needs her, even though he doesn't know how to put it any better than that. It's obvious that Adam cares about Beth in a fully adult, masculine way. But he doesn't know the lingo, so all he can say is that he would fall apart without her — and that, of course, isn't good enough.

If Adam had stopped when Adam carries his bags down to the van waiting in the street — he's going to take a new job in California, one that he's well-suited for but also one that he probably wouldn't have been offered without Beth's coaching — then I wouldn't be asking questions about movies-of-the-week. Perhaps it is the California thing that kills this delicate production. In the final scenes ("one year later"), Adam has settled in at an observatory high above the clouds. When a colleague asks him if he's going to a farewell party, he answers affirmatively, and the colleague sincerely says, "Cool." A package arrives — it is a gift from Beth. It is the children's book that she has always wanted to write. "Haven't we come a long way" reads the note (not an inscription) tucked inside. You feel like a falling soufflé.

It's possible that I'll be so taken with the performances in this film when I see it on DVD that I'll teach myself to pretend that the ending is an overlookable excrescence. Maybe Amy Irving's lovely, betrayed wife will convince me to forgive Max Mayer just as she forgives her husband. Then again, maybe I'll find Adam to be a lovable character. For the film's sake, I do hope not. (August 2009)

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