The quirky independent romantic comedy sets my heart afire. I love them. I can’t stand regular romantic comedies because it’s typically two desperately attractive flavor-of-the-year celebrities tangled with the dire strait of “OFG, I’ve got this one really hot guy/girl who’s a douchenozzle/bitchbag, and I should really be falling for the shrugging wallflower who’s also really hot and is a small town doctor/lawyer/whatever job I just read a magazine article about in Cosmo/Maxim/Pet Fancy.” Granted, quirky indie rom-coms are just as formulaic. Two usually pasty white twenty-somethings with jobs or interests culled from our elementary school “When I Grow Up” projects wearing hipster gear mumble and fumble until they fall in love but are torn apart by a quirk only to be dashed lovingly back together all to the soundtrack of mopey piano/guitar alt-rock. But I FUCKING. LOVE. THAT. So while I — who adored Lars and the Real Girl and Juno — was finally happy to see the quirky rom-com get its overdue accolades, I realized this trend would soon. From Hollywood hierarchy (Sam Mendes’ Away We Go) to the lowliest film school artfreaks (Gigantic), everyone would be doing it, so why can’t we a soundtrack by the Cranberries? When it works, it’s a breath of fresh air in a field of stagnant Witherspoon and Zellweger. When it doesn’t, it’s called Adam.
Our hero Adam (Hugh Dancy), a pasty white twenty-something with socially awkward tendencies and an obsession with outer space, is trying to cope with the death of his father. Enter Beth (Rose Byrne), a goofy and loveable free-spirit who wants to be a children’s author, and who has daddy issues of her own. What’s the quirk? Well, you see, Adam has Asperger’s syndrome. SCREEEEEEEECCCCCCHHH! Smoking tires and spilled Big Gulp on the highway of taste. When dealing with a socially popular disorder, there are usually three routes this can travel: the haha, the awww, or the yeah. The haha is something like The Other Sister, where characters go full retard in order to amuse slash guilt the audience into laughing at their wild spastic minstrelling and then feeling bad because they laughed at the Short Bus Summer Stock. Fortunately, Hollywood’s gotten too savvy for that — and most of their children now have some form of autism. The awww typically involves one character with a severe disorder, and the other characters for the most part stare at them and coo, “Look, they’re just like normal people.” It’s patronizingly offensive and usually immensely popular. Adam looked like it was going to veer into the third category, the yeah, especially from the trailer where the handicapped are acknowledged, mocked, and treated exactly like everyone else, like the deaf brother in Four Weddings and a Funeral. It’s not a morality play, it’s not a social mirror, it’s just a characteristic like being fat or being short. But Adam goes the full Awwwww. And it’s retarded.
Hugh Dancy does a magnificent job playing Adam, never overdoing the tics or mannerisms. He plays Asperger’s honestly, with anger and confusion, and a stiltedness that belies the fact he is fighting against a condition that locks him in like a metal brace. Rose Byrne, who’s a marvelous actress, keeps fading in and out of characters like a staticky image of Ione Skye or Liv Tyler. She’s like a medium channeling all the brunette love interests of my formative years. There’s a little Mia Sara, a little Jennifer Connelly, but mostly inklings of Diane from Say Anything. I don’t blame her, but rather the clunky script by writer-director Max Mayer, who assembled this like a children’s birdhouse. There are planks nailed haphazardly everywhere, leaving many gaps and awkward transitions. It leaps jarringly and stiffly from element to element, with characters totally shifting at random. There’s a ridiculously overblown subplot involving Peter Gallagher as Beth’s father — channeling the same hardnosed asshole from American Beauty (only with a milkshake-gagging Nehew Ya-wak accent) — and his legal and moral woes. The supporting cast is pretty impressive. Amy Irving as Beth’s socialite mom, Frankie Faison as the old family friend looking out for Adam, and Mark Linn-Baker as Adam’s sneering boss. But nobody can withstand the drudgery and high-handedness of the awkward — and potentially autistic — script.
The ultimate message of the movie seems to be twofold offensive: a) Beth only loves Adam because she wants to prove he’s normal and b) Adam only loves Beth because he needs someone to take care of him. There are a few light-hearted chuckles, but these act as gasps for air in a dreary melancholy that pervades the film. It’s not a pretty, happy movie, and I guess that (and the soundtrack) are how Mayer wants to claim his indie cred. My biggest beef with the film is the whole Asperger’s rom-com has been done before, and done brain-and-heart-meltingly well a few years ago in a film that’s fucking impossible to find: Mozart and the Whale. Radha Mitchell and Josh Hartnett as two people with Asperger’s trying to find love, and it’s spectacular. It never makes fun of the disorder or asks you to feel sorry for the two people, and it’s still a light-hearted and fun romantic comedy. In Adam, it feels more like we’re supposed to feel guilty for not understanding people with Asperger’s, for making fun of people like Forrest Gump and Raymond Babbitt. What endeared me during the trailer was that Adam makes fun of people who treat him like those two guys. However, it just turned out to be a fleeting joke to lure idiots like me into the morass of Max Mayer’s sappy and finger-wagging guilt trip.
Brian Prisco is a bitter little man stomping sour grapes into fine whine in the valleys of North Hollywood. He’s a screenwriter who’s never been professionally produced, an actor who’s never joined a guild, and a director who made one bad film. He’s one waiter apron away from a cliche, and he’s available for children’s parties. You can tell him how much you hate him at priscogospel at hotmail dot com.