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After Rain Man
BRITISH MEDICAL JOURNAL

August 21, 2009

Chloe Veltman considers the latest in a run of Asperger’s-centric movies from Hollywood

Asperger’s syndrome has become a pop-culture fetish lately. The hazily understood autism spectrum disorder has become a common plot device in such television shows as House, Bones, and Law & Order. The protagonists of Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Stieg Larsson’s thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008) are affected by the syndrome. It is the subject of a slew of new non-fiction titles including 22 Things a Woman Must Know If She Loves a Man With Asperger’s by Rudy Simone, The Love-Shy Survival Guide by Talmer Shockley, and Christopher Babcock’s The Imprinted Brain. Hollywood has also picked up on the trend with a growing pile of Asperger’s-centric films including 2005’s Mozart and the Whale, which stars Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell as two Asperger’s syndrome sufferers, and the recent animated feature Mary and Max, centering on the relationship between a middle-aged New Yorker with the condition and a lonely Australian child.

More than two decades have elapsed since director Barry Levinson first brought autism to broad public attention with his 1988 movie Rain Man, which starred Dustin Hoffman as an autistic savant and Tom Cruise as his selfish, yuppie brother. If the newfound appeal of Asperger’s in mainstream culture points to anything, it’s the growing awareness and acceptance of high-functioning autism in society—a trend that Max Mayer’s new feature film, Adam, particularly underscores. Far from depicting its protagonist, a painfully gauche 29 year old electrical engineer played with limpid-eyed sensitivity by Hugh Dancy, as a freak, the movie strives to demonstrate just how little distance separates the so-called "neurotypical" population from the "neurodiverse."

A bittersweet romantic comedy, Adam takes place at a turning point in the titular character’s life. Soon after the death of his father, with whom he shared an apartment, Adam meets Beth, a young schoolteacher and aspiring children’s book author (played by Rose Byrne) who’s just moved into his building. The two develop an idiosyncratic romance that takes an intense turn when events over which the lovers have little control threaten to unbalance their relationship with each other and with the world around them. Adam loses the job that his father got for him years before—a serious problem for someone who’s never sent out a curriculum vitae, much less had to pay a Manhattan mortgage solo. Beth, meanwhile, finds herself caught in the middle of a courtroom scandal concerning her well to do accountant father and his business partner’s daughter. As both characters struggle to makes sense of their lives, they grow together, then apart. Circumstances divide them, but the spark that kindled their relationship at the start of the film still flickers at its end.

Perhaps the most palpable quality of this boy next door romance is how normal and relatively well-adjusted its protagonist seems. Dancy’s performance refreshingly lacks the Hoffmanesque physical ticks normally associated with the portrayal of autistic characters on screen. Although his serious expression and permanently furrowed brow convey a state of general malaise, we very rarely see him lose control completely.

Uncomfortable situations frequently make his shoulders shake and his breath run short. But his inability to cope takes a truly dark turn only once. When Adam discovers that Beth told a tiny white lie in order to engineer a meeting between her father and her new socially awkward beau, he bursts into an uncontrollable, violent rage. His condition apparently renders him unable to distinguish between a harmless fib and a serious perjury, such as that committed by Beth’s father.

Mayer mostly plays Adam’s syndrome for laughs, viewing it more as an adorable quirk than a debilitating illness. In the movie’s opening sequence, the filmmaker offers us close ups of the protagonist’s obsessively tidy New York apartment, with its kitchen stuffed with rows of neatly stacked provisions and and closets hung with monochrome sports jackets of an old fashioned cut. Adam’s social ineptitude is similarly a cause for comedy. When Beth, laden down with groceries, accosts him on the stairs outside their building near the start of their relationship, he fails to help her with her load. At a party, he abruptly says "no thank you" when the host asks him and Beth if they’d like to meet her baby girl, and proceeds to talk some poor girl’s ear off about Dobsonian telescope lenses. Like many people with Asperger’s syndrome, Adam has an encyclopaedic knowledge of one or two subjects. Astronomy is his chief obsession, with New York theatre history running a distant second.

The result of playing down Adam’s condition while playing up the drama and emotional turmoil going on in Beth’s life further helps to "normalise" Asperger’s for the cinemagoer. This sweet if not emotionally or intellectually penetrating film is more about how people learn to cope with what life throws at them than it is about living with an acute developmental disorder.

Adam
Directed by Max Mayer
On general UK and limited US release
Rating: ***

Chloe Veltman talks about Adam in a BMJ Podcast at
http://podcasts.bmj.com/bmj.

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