By Ryan Hamm
August 21, 2009
Adam is a love story. Kind of. There's a guy (the titular character played with Oscar-worthy perfection by Hugh Dancy) and a girl (Beth, played by Rose Byrne), and they fall in love ... but it's more complicated than that. And much more complex than the average "complications" thrown together by a more traditional movie romance.
The complications stem from Adam's Asperger's Syndrome. This condition makes it difficult for Adam to formulate, describe or even sense his own feelings—much less the feelings of another person. He lacks any real ability for dishonesty and nothing disturbs him more than feeling like he can't trust the words of another person. Adam's Asperger's makes it nearly impossible for him to discern when someone says one thing but means another, making it necessary for the important people in his life to spell out exactly what they're feeling and what they want and need from him.
Naturally, this makes a relationship extraordinarily difficult. The courtship of Adam and Beth starts off normally enough—boy meets girl when she moves into the apartment building, boy helps girl figure out laundry system, girl invites boy to party, etc. But it takes a series of strange (and often quite funny) turns when Adam tries to win over Beth by showing her an intensely in-depth mini-presentation about the expansion of space and by cleaning her windows of soot ... while dressed as an astronaut.
Adam is also a coming-of-age story, but is unique in that the character that comes of age is in his late 20s. Much of the film revolves around the question of whether or not Adam's feelings toward Beth center on actual love or are just the feelings of a dependent for someone he needs in order to be as functional as he can be. This tenuous balance is put to the test time and time again, especially as Beth experiences a series of family tragedies that make her realize her need for someone who will truly care for her instead of someone she needs to always care for.
To its credit, though it centers around a character with a disorder, Adam never feels exploitative or like a cheap grab at acting awards. Dancy does an amazing job of bringing life to Adam—the character isn't defined by his Asperger's. It's certainly a part of him, but it just makes things like leaving his home and dealing with interpersonal communication much more difficult. His intelligence is remarkable, and his admirable ability to speak his mind sometimes aids his relationship with Beth. How many of us have wanted to be able to speak with complete candor in social situations? Adam does so without even thinking about it, and his honesty—however blunt and comical—makes Beth appreciate him even more as a person, not a charity case.
The film never falls into an easy path of the "person with a handicap overcomes all odds" type of movie (I'm looking at you, Radio). In fact, it actually pokes fun at the entire formula of those types of movies as Adam accepts a gift of chocolates from Beth by saying, "I'm not Forrest Gump, you know." Adam's Asperger's isn't used as a crutch—the film is much more interested in asking, "Can someone fall in love with a person with Asperger's, not in spite of the disorder but because that disorder is a part of them?" The answer, of course, is a resounding yes—but the result is one that might surprise you.
Overall, Adam is poignant and surprising. It's a charming love story, but one that lets melancholy creep in around the edges. Beth and Adam are both complicated in different ways, and their attempts at traversing those complexities make Adam much more interesting than an average romance. The film is bittersweet and filled with ups and downs, but that fact alone means it attempts—and succeeds—to grapple with realism.