What is it with American cinema and sensitive, misunderstood loners? From Charlie Chaplin to Midnight Cowboy to Rain Man and Forrest Gump, few film themes seem more enduring than this one, of pitting an underdog against a hostile world.
Adam puts an indie spin on that perennial fixation with its tale of a dreamy, astronomy-obsessed genius (Hugh Dancy) who attracts the attention of a romantic, maternal rich girl Beth (Rose Byrne). Beth is willing to look past Adam's Asperger's syndrome — the hallmarks of the disease are an inability to pick up on social cues and a profound difficulty relating and empathizing with others — and to see him as a romantic match, despite the resistance of friends and family.
As the film opens, his father's death has upset the balance of Adam's life. His carefully calibrated routine — a techie job at a toy development company, capacious Manhattan apartment, and a fridge stocked with rows of identical frozen dinners — is suddenly threatened. The other sudden cataclysm is the arrival in Adam's building of new neighbor Beth, an aspiring children's book author and primary school teacher. In a scene that recalls the famous planetarium scene in another bittersweet romance, Rebel Without a Cause, Adam ushers Beth into his darkened apartment, where a light show of the cosmos is projected onto his walls. Beth is clearly charmed by his passion and childlike naivete. She harbors her own inner child, expressed early on when she confides her infatuation with the philosophical children's book The Little Prince.
The most authentic and rewarding dimension of the seriously flawed, charisma-strapped Adam is how accurately it conveys the complicated dance of courtship, as Beth struggles to separate Adam's condition from his character and discern the truth of the individual lying beneath the surface.
In a way often reminiscent of The Graduate, in Adam grown-ups and their elastic way with truth and fiction, are not so easily trusted. The no-bullshit truth-speaking that is a condition of Adam's Asperger's is contrasted with the duplicity of adults, specifically Beth's scheming daddy Marty (Peter Gallagher), an accountant being investigated for some financial malfeasance. Like the lovers in The Graduate, Beth and Adam are united by age and sensibility: they measure success differently than the older generation. Adam's space fantasies and Beth's love of children's books suggests the pleasures of escape to alternate worlds beyond the limitations of the day-to-day and a romantic embrace of the child within these characters. But director Max Mayer embraces Asperger's to questionable ends.
Adam's biggest flaw is how it tends to employ what you could call the Forrest Gump-effect, romanticizing Adam's difference. Mayer strains to make Adam's Asperger's appealing — even cute — from Adam washing Beth's dirty apartment windows wearing his NASA space suit, to scrawny Adam's adorably oversized buddy (Frankie Faison) who serves as the prototypical saintly black helpmate. Adam's difference from the norm becomes oddly heroic in former theater-director Mayer's hands, suggesting disability as a special gift and insight into the world. Those who have personal experience with Asperger's might be less inclined to put such a romantic gloss on the condition.
There is no denying Dancy's role in creating such a compelling character. Though Byrne can be a bit of a blank slate, Dancy is irrepressibly appealing and profoundly sympathetic as a man out of step with the world. It's hard not to empathize with his terror when he loses his job or is threatened with eviction from his apartment: routine clearly means everything to him.
But beyond Dancy's performance, Adam can feel fairly routine. Adam is a serviceable, but ultimately unsatisfying character study and sometimes romance that strikes too many familiar chords. We've seen some variation on this story told too many times before, in far better hands and with far greater insight. For a truer, more ragged portrait of the real terror of being outside the norm, Midnight Cowboy or any of director Kelly Reichardt's portraits of lonely outsiders are the far better bet.