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Monday, Aug. 24, 2009

Adam

Hugh Dancy, Rose Byrne play star-crossed couple

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­The leafy brownstone-lined streets of Manhattan, and the electric gleam of the skyline over Central Park at night, have long been the perfect setting for cinematic romance. Ada­m, a story of star-crossed young lovers playing out against this idyllic background, delivers the usual plot with a twist or two. For starters, the protagonist, Adam (Hugh Dancy), has Asperger syndrome, a form of autism that makes understanding the feelings of others, and their socially coded words and gestures, difficult at best. Adam is brilliant in science, an electronics engineer, but the social handicap of Asperger has left him with no better job than designing voice chips for a line of children's dolls.

When Adam meets his attractive new neighbor, Beth (Rose Byrne), in the basement laundry room, he doesn't know how to respond to her cordial small talk. And when they meet again, as Beth drags a heavy cart of groceries up the steep steps of their building, Adam doesn't try to help, offering instead to show her cool new pictures of Saturn on his laptop. Most women would chalk him up as weird. Beth is intrigued. She makes a casual complaint about her sooty windows and days later finds Adam clambering down the side of the building, incongruously dressed for window washing in a spacesuit.

Asperger has left Adam a bit literal-minded in his interpretation of the wishes of those around him. As for himself, Adam is incapable of saying anything other than what's really on his mind.

The humor in this romantic comedy derives from Adam's maladroit behavior; we're laughing with him rather than at him because of Dancy's sweet-natured performance and a script sympathetic to his condition. The romance between Adam and Beth runs into predictable problems, especially when she introduces him to friends and family. A casual question at a party about buying a telescope triggers a lecture from Adam on deep space exploration. Beth's dad, an unctuous and corrupt Wall Street broker, has entirely different ideas about the man he wants his girl to marry. Sometimes, when flummoxed by a society he can't entirely grasp, Adam flies into twitching spasms of anger.

As Adam reaches its conclusion, the quirky plot ventures onto the sunny uplands of the unexpected. Is Adam an innocent in a guilty world a la Prince Myshkin from Dostoyevsky's The Idiot? Or is he closer to an overgrown child, emotionally and socially stunted as a result of Asperger syndrome? Adam makes us wonder whether the distinction between being in love and being in need is always entirely clear, especially to people guided solely by the music of their heart.