September 11, 2009

Lots of Love — Not a Lot of Reality

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People with disabilities are portrayed quite callously in the movies: Cliff Robertson’s portrayal of Charlie Gordon in Charly, Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Arnie Grape in What’s Eating Gibert Grape?, Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump and Sean Penn’s less successful title character in I Am Sam. As Robert Downey Jr. also brashly points out in Tropic Thunder, playing a handicapped individual in a serious drama is a sure way to get an Oscar nomination. Not to say the above stated roles were in any way throwaway performances — quite the contrary. Still, it’s best to approach films with such a scenery-chewing centerpiece with caution. One has a wry respect for directors like the Farrelly brothers, who populate their films with handicapped individuals, often for laughs, but always as real, three-dimensional people with the same nasty streak that is exhibited by all people.
In the recently released Adam, English actor Hugh Dancy (Confessions of a Shopaholic, Ella Enchanted) does great work as a man with Asperger’s syndrome, a mild variant of autism. In Adam, Asperger’s is not autism the way that its been exhibited by Hollywood before (in other words, the Rain Man standard of savant-hood), but instead more of a social interaction disorder. Many, if not most, carry out what one would call a “normal” life, a job, marriage, family, hobbies, etc. Dancy certainly captures this aspect well in his role as Adam Raki.
Adam’s story begins with the passing of his father as attempts to adjust to his life in a now-too-big New York City apartment. He works at a toy factory, programming the chips that give voices to dolls, while also pursuing his love of astronomy and mouthing along to Inside the Actors’ Studio. He has constructed a slideshow planetarium in his living room, eats the same brand of macaroni and cheese and cereal every day and occasionally has lunch with his late father’s old war buddy Harlan (Frankie Faison, Meet the Browns). Without much dialogue, Adam’s life of quiet repetition is revealed along with an intense savant-like genius and a fascination with stars and space.
Then, Beth (the lovely Rose Byrne, Sunshine, Troy) moves into the apartment and Adam isn’t so lonely in his building anymore. Beth is a children’s book author passing time as a private elementary school teacher, the only daughter of a major business player (Peter Gallagher) and a doting wife (Amy Irving). She runs into Adam in the laundry room, and finds his shy, if awkward, demeanor endearing. She’s running from a bad breakup with an investment banker her dad set her up with, and is in a new part of the city, chasing a stellar dream after finding inspiration among children’s books in her youth. What’s Adam to do?
He shows her his planetarium and then speaks way too frankly about his sexual feelings for her. Beth tries to run away, but he’s the sensitive type she needs in her life, and he means well, right? She asks the elementary school counselor a few questions about Asperger’s syndrome and the two rush into a relationship.
A little more cuteness and film would fast approach the night iceberg of “cloying,” which would overcompensate and suck all the warmth from the film. Nonetheless there are subplots, one where Adam loses his job, and the audience feels his desperation as he leaves the office and hits the market (sound familiar?). Beth’s father is indicted for embezzlement, and the trial causes her undue stress that she takes out on poor Adam. The trial is filled with cliché revelations. You can’t have a scandal in the movies without it feeling like a scandal in the movies.
The closest the film comes to showing a side of Adam that isn’t goofy or likeable is during his one autistic, ear-grabbing freak-out. Done almost for plot tension, to divvy up the cuteness for a change, he for once resembles a real person, with real problems. It’s too bad they focus on his disorder and not selfishness or fatigue or anything less attention-grabbing. It’s hinted at, but never deeply explored. And so, Charly this film is not.
What Adam is, is a sweet film about two people who manage to be interesting despite themselves, and who perhaps need each other more than they love each other. In an interview with aggregate review site, Rotten Tomatoes, Dancy says that he hopes “[audiences] will recognize the very human story of one individual, any of us, trying to properly make contact with another one.”
It’s like Jerry Maguire all over, a love story and romantic comedy where the jokes feel less real than slapstick, and where the path is a well-worn cliché in fresh new shoes, except Adam is more like Tom Cruise in real life with no shared experiences to those with Asperger’s.