Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 08/07/09 09:00:00

"A fascinating, if flawed, romantic drama."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Romantic comedies and romantic dramas are, at their most fundamental, conservative genres. They tend to focus on heterosexual coupling, typically ending with monogamous commitment (romantic comedy) or life-lessons learned (romantic drama). Hollywood studio executives seem content to modify generic elements (i.e., socio-economic backgrounds, age, ethnicity) while keeping the genreís underlying thematic content. On occasion, as with the recent "(500) Days of Summer," an anti-romantic comedy, and now "Adam," Max Mayerís feature-length debut centered on an unlikely romance, the formula either gets upended or, at least, gently tweaked, provided moviegoers with a few surprises, emotional, dramatic, or otherwise.

Superficially, Adam Raki (Hugh Dancy) resembles every other twenty-something approaching thirty. He seems uncomfortable in social situations, both at work and elsewhere, but his intense introspection is exactly what we expect will disappear when he meets his new neighbor, Beth Buchwald (Rose Byrne). Adam, however, isnít an ordinary twenty-something. His social awkwardness and self-imposed isolation isnít due to a lonely childhood or a character flaw, but to Aspergerís Syndrome, a neurological condition that inhibits his ability to socially interact with other people. He canít ďreadĒ facial expressions, body language, or vocal intonation. With the loss of first his father and then his job, Adam has only an old family friend, Harlan (Frankie Faison), to rely on.

Once Beth, a schoolteacher, learns Adam has Aspergerís, her first instinct is to learn as much about it as possible. A romantic relationship with Adam, however, seems more problematic. Adamís inability to express himself emotionally or empathize with others, except superficially, makes him a seemingly non-viable choice for a long-term relationship. But Beth, still scarred from a previous relationship, finds it difficult to resist Adamís naÔvetť and innocence. Bethís father, Marty (Peter Gallagher), under indictment for fraud, and a chilly relationship with her mother, Rebecca (Amy Irving), adds to Bethís emotional burdens. Adamís emotional fragility, his emotional immaturity, his emotional vulnerability prove to be obstacles to a long-term relationship with Beth.

On a narrative level, Adam follows a familiar path, at least when it comes to romantic dramas as it follows the ups-and-downs of Adam and Bethís stop-start romantic relationship, with the additional complication of Bethís family life and Adamís search for a new job after heís laid off. Itís in these added complications that Adam stumbles. Either complication would seem organic on a narrative level, but both complications, dependent on outside forces, feels contrived and forced, the result of an unfocused screenplay or a first-time writer who should have used his characters rather than external events to drive the narrative to its resolution. In the resolution at least, Adam works on an emotional level.

Faults aside, Mayer deserves credit for his sensitive approach to Aspergerís Syndrome. Part of that credit, of course, belongs to the talented cast. Usually relegated to bland romantic leads, Dancy makes Adam never less than engaging (a hard task given Adamís emotional limitations). As Beth, Rose Byrne more than carries her half of the emotion-heavy scenes. Mayerís luck with actors (or his skill with them, to be fair) extends to a mostly veteran supporting cast, including Peter Gallagher, Amy Irving, and Frankie Faison. As a writer-director, Mayer certainly shows promise. A less contrivance-dependent screenplay should help him next time around (and, at minimum, there should be).

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