DVD Release Date:  February 2, 1010
Theatrical Release Date:  July 29, 2009 (limited); August 28, 2009 (wide)
Rating:  PG-13 (for thematic material, sexual content and language.)
Genre:  Drama, Romance, Comedy
Run Time:  99 min.
Director:  Max Mayer
Actors:  Hugh Dancy, Rose Byrne, Peter Gallagher, Amy Irving, Frankie Faison

When an end-credit roll is met with small gasps and peeved reactions like, "What?  That's it?  Are you kidding me?!", it's not a good sign.  That's bound to happen, though, when a movie waits until the very end to pull the rug right out from under you—and that's exactly what the new indie-romance Adam does.

Formulaic to a fault, the entire narrative trajectory of Adam is clearly headed in one direction.  It over-dramatizes milquetoast conflicts while offering up almost zero surprises en route to a predictable conclusion.  Well, until a complete U-turn at the end.  When a filmmaker so clearly sets-up viewers to expect one thing but then gives them the exact opposite and (most rudely) leaves that with them, well, it's not clever or insightful.  It's just plain stupid.

The saddest irony is that writer/director Max Mayer has conceived a premise intrinsically built to avoid such pitfalls (yet he falls into every one of them).  It's the story of Adam Raki, an awkward yet intelligent young New Yorker who suffers from a mild form of autism known as Asperger's Syndrome.  This developmental disorder greatly diminishes perception and intuition, creating severe difficulties when trying to interact socially.  It's as if being tactless were a disease … which, in this case, it basically is.

To explore that in the context of falling in love is a brilliant little notion, especially when it's the guy who suffers from Asperger's.  It opens the door to a variety of intriguing relational conflicts and possible narrative directions; more importantly, it serves as a metaphor to examine how men—generally speaking—have difficulty perceiving and intuiting women's thoughts and feelings. Indeed, it's in those metaphorical parallels that the film has its moments, mostly hilarious.

Unfortunately they're just moments, and only occasional at that.  The bulk of the story Mayer conceives here is otherwise severely (even surprisingly) uninspired as it follows a very traditional romantic arc between Adam and Beth (a new neighbor in Adam's apartment complex) that begins with meet-cute and, from there, hastens the progression of the relationship more out of obligation than believability.  It's not the light and humorous tone I object to, it's just that Mayer makes it all too easy. 

Whatever initial—and understandable—concerns Beth may have about committing to an emotionally-stunted man (especially after coming right out of a bitter breakup herself), she casually forgets them in rather short order, and before you know it they're a couple.  The fact that Adam is by nature the exact opposite kind of person you'd find yourself emotionally swept up in makes the quick progression feel all the more forced.  This leads to the film's most egregious over-compensation:  Adam's damaged puppy-dog persona.

This base characterization is a lazy way to endear both Beth and the audience to Adam and his sociological burden, and at worst I'd say it's a bit of an insult to anyone with Asperger's.  Either way, there needs to be a more credible reason for love to bloom than wanting to rescue the poor guy. 

Yes, it makes sense that Adam would be emotionally-scarred; wouldn't you be if your innocent nature was occasionally deemed offensive to people you're trying to engage with?  On the other hand, how does one who lacks emotional cognition interpret such offenses taken, if at all?  This film offers no clarity to these questions or any true understanding of what it's like to experience Asperger's.  Instead, it resorts to moments played for laughs or wounds at Adam's fragile expense.

As Adam, Hugh Dancy (Confessions of a Shopaholic, The Jane Austen Book Club) certainly tries his level best to get into an Asperger's state of mind and embody the weight it bears, but he tries too hard.  Like the script, Dancy's approach and execution is more calculated than organic.  We see the acting mechanics constantly churn rather than flow.  I'll grant it's not an easy character to tackle, but Dancy's performance unfortunately proves how true that is.  Rose Byrne demonstrates more versatility as the charming Beth (especially in comparison to her tortured and fierce regular role on TV's Damages), but there's only so much talent can do to maneuver through material that rushes romantic growth and emotional turns.

Dramatically, it reaches.  When the biggest relational conflict mustered is a melodramatic blowup over the littlest of white lies (graciously intended, no less), it speaks to how little is observed (or was researched) when it comes to such an idiosyncratic psychological condition.  Making a mountain out of such a molehill also creates flat drama, inherently suggesting the fight's assured resolution. 

So instead of doing the work to really dig into this unique dynamic, Mayer completely bogs down the final act with a subplot involving Beth's elitist father and his legal trouble.  The script spends too much time retreading crisis we've seen countless times before as it progressively ignores its singular core trait. 

Why not, for example, give Beth an initial shallow prejudice toward Asperger's that she must overcome?  Why not have her require as much growth as him, thus resulting in a more authentic (and rich) relational arc between the two?  Alas, what we end up with is something more plot than character driven, mired in an exponentially unbearable mix of cuteness and sorrow.

Which brings us back to the end.  So contrived is everything that leads up to it, the least it could do is give us what we expect; I mean why break precedent, right?  Yet it does.  After all the fight, struggle, crying and screaming Adam and Beth endure between each other and her parents, where it all ends is a real slap-in-the-face.  Oddly enough, that ending is the film's one honest moment.  What makes it wrong is that it needed the exact opposite movie to earn it.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Alcohol is consumed in social settings. 
  • Language/Profanity:  A few profanities occasionally used.  While not constant, they do include the "s" word and two uses of the "f" word.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Man's hand touches breast underneath clothing.  Couple lies in bed together, they kiss and are affectionate.
  • Violence/Other:  Adam erupts aggressively in one scene, wreaking havoc over a room, but no actual physical violence occurs

Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla.  He is also cohost of "Steelehouse Podcast," along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture. 

To listen to the weekly podcast, please visit www.steelehouse.com or click here.  You can also subscribe to "Steelehouse Podcast" through iTunes.