If there’s one thing Tropic Thunder has taught me, it’s that films about mental disability can bring rich rewards – but also great scorn. It was with the warning against ‘going full retard’ ringing in my ears that I went to check out Adam, the rom-com/drama starring Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne about the relationship between a young woman and her neighbour who suffers from Aspergers syndrome.
The film opens with some high drama, as we are introduced to Adam (Hugh Dancy) in the immediate aftermath of his father’s funeral. Now living alone in his apartment, we watch him as he tries to cope with his life alone and we are gradually inducted to his condition (it’s a little like autism). His life is about to get more complicated as his new neighbour Beth Buchwald (Rose Byrne) moves in.
Slowly, the get to know one another and grow closer. But, as you might expect, it isn’t easy. And to show us this writer/director Max Mayer decides to stage a series of plot devices to provide hurdles for the pair to overcome together. Beth’s father happens to be a shady accountant accused of some suspect activity, and Adam’s job security plummets. As other mishaps happen all around them, the pair are thrown together and strike up a relationship. It works, and there are some genuinely moving moments, but it feels too contrived.
Part of the problem may be Mayer’s background in theatre. Every element of the story is heavily dialogue driven, ‘events’ occur with unnecessary frequency and there is little visual flair to punctuate the wordplay. On the plus side, this means that Dancy and Byrne were nurtured into producing great performances. It is clear that they’ve put a lot into the roles, and have great chemistry together. Byrne, in particular, deserves to be commended for playing an awkward role with significant care and forethought. She doesn’t overplay Beth’s uncertainty about her relationship with Adam, but nor does she brush his mental disability aside in a twee ‘we’re all the same inside’ gesture that could so easily been applied.
So it’s 50-50 up to this point. Credible acting, nice emotional nuance, but inserted into a heavily contrived plot. What’s going to be the decider? You guessed it. The Tropic Thunder test. On the strength of the acting, it’s a pass. Hugh Dancy sometimes takes the ‘socially inept’ aspect of his role a little too far, but that can be excused (but only slightly) because it facilitated some gentle social commentary comedy. However, the inconsistency of the writing meant that Adam wasn’t so much ‘full retard’ as ‘nondescript retard archetype’. The character seemed a mere exercise through which to investigate how ‘normal’ people deal with disability. His own character fluctuated between banging his head on a mirror in frustration and calmly attending a social gathering, albeit with a few minor social niceties neglected. And by the end, these fluctuations had all but disappeared, thus suggesting (without any suggestion being merited by the preceding plot) that he had somehow overcome the terrible grip of Aspergers on his life.
I don’t want to dismiss the film outright, because it has got some nice moments and solid performances from the central duo. But it’s all a little too neatly packaged for my taste, it’s rigid structure leaves the characters serving the story rather than the story expanding the characters. And that prevents the film from reaching its full potential.
This article was first posted on August 6, 2009