Films about the mentally challenged tend to be of a piece, usually along these lines: They’re people, too, with the same needs as you and me. Except they’re more noble, more sensitive, more … something, because they’re, well, special.
For the most part, however, Max Mayer’s “Adam” avoids that trap. Yes, Hugh Dancy’s character, Adam, has Asperger’s syndrome. But this oddly affecting romantic comedy is less about that than it is an odd-couple tale in which personality differences are the obstacle – and Asperger’s is one of those differences.
Dancy plays Adam, a young man with an engineering job and an apartment, whose father (his lifelong protector and cheerleader) has just died. Adam is self-sufficient, navigates Manhattan daily and is outwardly normal, except for the flat affect of Asperger’s. This prevents him from connecting with or taking emotional cues from other people in the usual way.
Then he meets Beth (Rose Byrne), who has just gotten out of a relationship with an untrustworthy man and taken the apartment upstairs from Adam. He gradually inserts himself into her life as a friend – and he’s so unlike other men she knows that she’s willing to give him a chance. She learns to understand him once she figures out what his deal is.
But there’s a conflict – there’s always a conflict. In this case, it’s her snooty Westchester parents (Peter Gallagher, Amy Irving), who can’t believe their princess of a daughter would settle for damaged goods. Of course, Dad has problems of his own – and his have to do with secrets and lies about his own honesty.
Mayer’s script never tries to show the “special” side of Adam. There are funny moments that have to do with his inability to recognize social niceties and his tendency to blurt whatever he happens to be thinking. It’s never cute or precious, however, though Adam’s occasional meltdowns have a certain dramatic convenience.
One also wonders if Rose would have been as charmed by Adam if he looked like Paul Giamatti or Steve Buscemi, instead of cute Hugh Dancy. Still, Dancy and Byrne have a quirky chemistry that works. Dancy is particularly good as a guy who seems perpetually distracted but struggles to make connections that he sees others making.
It would be simple to cynically dismiss “Adam” as condescendingly feel-good, but that’s a lazy reading of a film that is full of heart and wit. Give it a chance and you’ll find yourself drawn into this character’s life in ways that will both touch and amuse you.