Romance and expectations


Nice, uh, life preserver?

Nice, uh, life preserver?

Rated 4.0

Max Mayer’s Adam is a confident, surefooted dramatic comedy about an uncertain, tentative romance. Adam Raki (Hugh Dancy) is a quiet, seemingly insular young man whom we first see at his father’s funeral, standing alone in a crowd clutching a neatly folded flag.

In time we learn that Adam has a particular interest in astronomy and can discourse in dizzying detail about a universe that is expanding faster than the speed of light. But before that, what strikes us first is how constricted Adam’s own universe is. His freezer is stuffed with rows of identical boxes of frozen macaroni and cheese, his cupboard with what looks like a hundred-year supply of All-Bran. He sits on his living-room sofa, straight as a board, fists balled in his lap, looking more like a patient in a dentist’s waiting room than someone relaxing in his own home.

At his job, working as an electrical engineer at a small Manhattan toy company, he greets everyone politely, then sequesters himself in his cubicle, immersed in the inner workings of a talking doll. His innovations are extravagantly creative, but irksome to his bland employer (Mark Linn-Baker): “I want a hundred-thousand at five dollars, Adam, not 50 at a thousand dollars.”

When he meets the new neighbor in his apartment building, Beth Buchwald (Rose Byrne), she introduces herself in the basement laundry room, asking if she can use his pass card for the washing machine. After a second’s hesitation, Adam agrees; the look on his face tells us that he feels his space has been invaded somehow, but that he doesn’t mind, and is surprised.

Is Adam dense? Tense? Preoccupied? Well, all of the above, in a way—but in a larger sense, none. Adam has Asperger’s syndrome, a sort of high-functioning autism (though there appears to be some debate as to whether it’s really part of the autism spectrum). People with Asperger’s display normal or high intelligence, often with special interest in a particular subject, but a lack of social skills and empathy with others, and difficulty adjusting to change. They don’t always grasp ordinary figures of speech (when advised to “back away” from a confrontation, they may literally walk backward). Indeed, when Adam loses his job, his boss says “I have to let you go,” and Adam responds, “Let me go? I don’t want to go!”

Losing his father, then his job, and meeting (and being attracted to) Beth all add up to a lot of change for Adam, and coping with it all forces him to draw on personal resources that, for all his inner-directedness, he never knew he had. In this he has the support of Harlan (Frankie Faison), a former Army buddy of his father who instinctively understands Adam and advises him on ways to deal with people (including a probate attorney who presses Adam to sell his apartment, the only home he’s ever known).

Adam also has the help of Beth herself, who first finds him intriguing, then disconcerting, then endearing. As she and Adam grow closer, Beth (who is coming off a hurtful breakup) finds that Adam is drawing her out of her own shell almost as much as she is drawing him out of his. She coaches him on how to interview for a new job, and he responds diligently.

But when Beth’s father (Peter Gallagher) runs into legal trouble, it throws her growing intimacy with Adam into relief, and his inability to empathize (or to keep from blurting out tactless questions) exasperates and infuriates her. Neither of them copes well with the resulting strain, and they emerge from the crisis in unexpected ways.

Unexpected by the audience as much as by Adam and Beth. Mayer’s script does in fact run counter to our romance-movie expectations, but without leaving us feeling cheated; on the contrary, if things wound up any other way, that would be the cheat. Mayer’s resolution has the sweet, rueful ring of truth.

As Adam, Dancy finally takes central focus in a film after years of yeoman support in pictures like The Jane Austen Book Club, Evening and Savage Grace. It’s a performance that rings all kinds of bells in an audience; the fact is, we’ve all known people with Asperger’s (diagnosed or not), and we recognize them in Adam.