By Michael Koresky
Dir. Max Mayer, U.S., Fox Searchlight
Itâ€™s hard to imagine a receptive audience for Max Mayerâ€™s Adam as anyone other than moony-eyed thirteen-year-old girlsâ€”not that Fox Searchlight would ever admit that this should be its target demographic. Itâ€™s an unimaginably precious retread of that most ubiquitous of rom-com plots, in which a troubled, misunderstood man comes out of his shell to earn the love of a beautiful, understanding young woman, but this one comes with an even more inflated sense of itself: this, after all, presumes to be an authentic look at the daily difficulties of functioning with Aspergerâ€™s Syndrome. And perhaps thatâ€™s where it started, in outline form, years ago. But in the transition to the screen, after going through industry cogs and gears, this Sundance-approved â€ścharmerâ€ť has been squeezed out on the other side as something utterly prefab, a false facsimile of how people act in movie-land, a copy of a copy of human behavior. There isnâ€™t a single shot or performance that feels honest, or that registers as anything other than passionless fodder for its playersâ€™ future highlight reels. (Is it just me, or is the â€śindieâ€ť branch of Fox singularly talented at searching out the least genuine, most contrived shitpiles in any given year? How do they do it?)
So why continue writing this review, or reading this review for that matter? Perhaps we can look at it as a cautionary tale, for its makers and potential viewers. It doesnâ€™t take long to sniff out what kind of a movie weâ€™re going to be watching (i.e., self-consciously whimsical and potentially sexistâ€¦jackpot!); right from the opening credits we get a bit of narration, from a female voice lullabying to us that The Little Prince is her favorite story, and that in considering Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ryâ€™s allegory, â€śI always thought I was the prince, but after I met Adam I realized I was the pilot all along.â€ť In other words, this young man, this â€śprince,â€ť this autistic, misunderstood boy-child, had so much to teach her, and in the ensuing film will have so much to teach us. Groan, slink down in your seat, thereâ€™s still 100 minutes to go.
To start from a childlike point of view turns out to a wholly appropriate tactic for a film that proceeds to treat its viewers like seven-year-olds. The film begins right when the obviously troubled thirty-something New Yorker Adam (Brit cutie Hugh Dancy, the ne plus ultra of inoffensive puppy-eyed manhood) has lost his father and final living parent, which is handily related to us when Adam, silently returning home after the funeral to his now-too-big-for-one brownstone floor, crosses out DADâ€™S CHORES on the fridge with a fat, red sharpee. Mayer continues to lay it on thicker than spackle with his thudding visual storytelling: rows of symmetrical Amyâ€™s Organic Mac and Cheese boxes disappear one by one from the shelfâ€”a convenient and patronizing way of showing time passing and establishing Adamâ€™s stultifying routine and obsessive-compulsive need for uniformity. Underlying it all are the coddling strains of a fauxâ€“Thomas Newman scoreâ€”processed cheese, indeed, is the order of the day.
Soon enough we meet the Little Princess herself, Beth (Australian actress Rose Byrne), wide-eyed and, I would venture, anorexic (though thatâ€™s a disease for another movie-of-the-week), who moves into the apartment below and immediately takes a hesitant liking to the mystery man upstairs, who with his kindness, dreamboy looks, and paralytic introversion must seem like a hell of a catch. Heâ€™s even got a cute job, as . . . wait for it . . . an electronic toymaker. Immediately, and improbably, she invites him out with her friends, although his social anxiety gets the better of him and he stays behind, leaving Beth to knock on his door later that night, presumably to see if she can do anything to single-handedly assuage the pain of living. When he opens the door, rather than a confessional, Beth walks into a makeshift planetarium projected onto his ceiling; plaintive piano plays as she looks up, awestruck not just by the vastness of space, but by the sheer depths of feeling and knowledge in this extraterrestrial we call Adam. Dancy grins. Beth gets teary. Audiences vomit.
Obviously, at this point, the film doesnâ€™t require any more formal synopsizing to enumerate its idiocies; the cleverest among you will have already run for the hills. No need to delve into, for example, the subâ€“Say Anything daddy issues Beth has with her corporate accountant father (Peter Gallagher, in prime sleazeball mode, which is to say, enormously unappealing), which lead into a ponderous subplot in which heâ€™s put on trial for some book-cooking; no possible reason you should know about the hilariously arch party scenes, full of hilariously heightened ADR work, featuring Bethâ€™s chic lesbian friends showing off their Chinese baby and discussing Islam; and youâ€™ll certainly thank me later for sparing the details of Adamâ€™s single friendship, his only confidante being a sassy African-American deliveryman named Harlan (Frankie Faison of The Wire), always ready with a quip.
Instead Iâ€™ll just mention how increasingly enervating it is to witness the perpetuating trend of American roles given to foreign actors, not necessarily because of the untapped local talent we have right here in our own backyard (especially for a New York story such as this one) but also because Dancy and Byrne, with serviceable but chewy American accents, are never completely convincing. Our eyes get incontrovertibly drawn to Dancyâ€™s mouth as he wraps his lips tensely around every word, as if heâ€™s grinding on gum while delivering lines; and Byrneâ€™s hangdog mannerisms seem more put-on than lived-in. Ultimately their performances feel like acting exercises, challenges for their own careers rather than credible, full-bodied charactersâ€”how fitting then that one of the superhuman symptoms of Adamâ€™s autism is his memorization of Inside the Actorâ€™s Studio episodes.
Most offensive though is the filmâ€™s self-righteousness as a work of advocacy. Itâ€™s clear that Mayer takes this disorder seriously, as well he should, and that at one point perhaps this was a passion project. When Beth finds out Adamâ€™s diagnosis (â€śI have this thing, itâ€™s called Aspergerâ€™s Syndrome,â€ť he blatantly states), she asks a fellow teacher, who proceeds to explain it to her, and us, as â€śhigh functioning autismâ€ť before handing her stacks of reading material plucked magically from her school shelf (â€śHereâ€™s a book: Pretending to Be Normal!â€ť). Didacticism aside, considering the presumed good intentions, itâ€™s particularly galling that Adam is ultimately represented as whimsical and wondrous rather than challenged and resilient. Despite one telegraphed â€śscaryâ€ť outburstâ€”culminating in a bad head-smashing into the mirror, followed by a single trickle of blood down his forehead, lit just soâ€”he constantly does uncomprehendingly adorable things that movies usually reserve for animatrons or starmen, often accompanied by wimp-rock interludes. See Adam showing Beth the beauties of the world by taking her on â€śraccoon watchesâ€ť in Central Park (which inexplicably makes her jaw drop with joy and surprise), committing a school playground faux pas (â€śIâ€™m watching the children,â€ť he confusedly intones to questioning cops, who almost arrest himâ€”cue alarming handheld camera!), or saying Gumpian things to Beth like â€śI can see youâ€™re upset, but I donâ€™t know what to do!â€ť The nadir of Adamâ€™s â€ścharmingâ€ť behavior is when, accompanied by the soundtrackâ€™s infernal xylophone diddling, he dons an astronaut outfit and dangles in front of Bethâ€™s window with a wiper. Is this a drama about an actual affliction or Bicentennial Man?
Such an outpouring of falseness doesnâ€™t do him, or us, any favors. In fact, Adam is exploitation, pure and simple, using a disorder many struggle with daily to buoy something wretchedly conventional, and counting on the idiocy of audiences to swallow it. Donâ€™t let them take advantage.