Adam (Hugh Dancy), appropriately shares his name with the first man because even though he lives in contemporary Manhattan, he is in a very real way new to the world. He seems at once tightly wound and untethered. When he talks about astronomy and outer space he seems not just vastly knowledgeable but more at home there than he is where he works or where he lives. We can tell right away that he is unusual, but we do not learn how or why until mid-way through the film. He has Asperger Syndrome, a sort of social dyslexia, an inability to pick up on social cues that “neuro-typical” (most people) recognize instinctively. For him, what happens in the sky makes more sense because it is rational and predictable than what happens in human interaction, where people do not always say what they mean and what is most interesting to work on is not always what his employer needs him to do.
We first see Adam standing at a grave site. His father, his tether to and buffer from the world, has died and for the first time he must try to make sense of things on his own. A young teacher named Beth (Rose Byrne) moves into his apartment building. She, too, is at a vulnerable moment, struggling with loss and betrayal. A man who cannot lie has a lot of appeal to her, and for a while at least that may make up for what he lacks.
Writer/director Max Mayer has crafted a sensitive, even lyrical, script that quickly makes us care about both of these characters. We want Adam and Beth to be happy, but Mayer wisely is not clear whether that means having them together or apart. This is not a movie about an exotic set of Aspergers symptoms. It is a movie about Adam and Beth, who have struggles that will be familiar to anyone who ever tried to find trust, connection and a place to feel at home. Like the raccoon they watch in Central Park, all of us feel at times that we are not supposed to here, but we are, and we must find a way to make the best of it. Perhaps Mayer’s canniest choice as a writer was to give Beth such good reasons to find Adam appealing. Her vulnerability after a bad breakup has her thinking at first that Adam’s standoffish behavior just means he is not that into her. It does not occur to her that it is because of his social limitations. As a warm-hearted teacher, she is naturally drawn to someone who needs her. Her father (Peter Gallagher) objects to Adam, but it is her mother (a most welcome Amy Irving) whose own example tells Beth what she most needs to know.
Byrne is appealing as Beth, and the cast includes strong support from Irving and from Broadway veteran Frankie Faison. But the heart of the movie is Adam and Dancy is excellent, relinquishing the leading man aura he carried so effortlessly in films like “Confessions of a Shopaholic” and “Ella Enchanted” and showing us Adam’s literal sense of tactile friction with the world as well as his longing for the kind of relationship he can not quite understand. It’s as though he is very, very far-sighted, the stars clear to him but what is right in front of him is out of focus. Dancy’s performance and Mayer’s thoughtful script and direction are just right in bringing Adam into sharp focus to illuminate not just his struggles but our own.
Hollywood legend and Oscar-winning screenwriter Budd Schulberg died this week at age 95. His best work documented the anguish and corruption he observed growing up as the son of one of the top executives of MGM at the height of the studio era. The Washington Post’s Adam Bernstein wrote:
Mr. Schulberg was the son of a legendary Hollywood producer whose fortunes rose and fell dramatically. As a result, he once said he was intrigued by “how suddenly [people] go up, and how quickly they go down.”
He used his insider knowledge of Hollywood politics to write his first novel, “What Makes Sammy Run?” in 1941. A grotesque account of vice being rewarded, the book was widely praised (though not in Hollywood) and made him a star author at 27.
Vivid, crackling dialogue was his hallmark in about 10 other books and a handful of riveting films. He wrote the memorable speech that included the line “I coulda been a contender,” spoken by actor Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront” (1954)…
Mr. Schulberg’s next project, “A Face in the Crowd” (1957), skewered the television industry and became a lasting favorite of critics and moviemakers. The film, again directed by Kazan, featured Andy Griffith in what many regard as his best role. Griffith played “Lonesome” Rhodes, a cracker-barrel prophet who self-destructs after he lands a national television show. “Face” was an underrated gem, a perceptive look at the future of television and politics.
This scene from “On the Waterfront” is one of the best-remembered in the history of film:
Hugh Dancy plays the title role in “Adam,” the story of a man with Asperger Syndrome, a form of social dyslexia that is on the autism spectrum. As the movie begins, Adam’s father has just died and he must learn to function on his own. Rose Byrne plays Beth, his new neighbor, who finds Adam’s inability to say anything but the literal truth an appealing quality because of her own losses and disappointments.
Hugh, one thing that really struck me in your performance was your walk, which really communicated a lot about the character. How did that develop?
It was a less conscious process than you might imagine. I never walked in my apt seven different ways to try to develop the right one. It was more learning the ways in which people are and are not tactile, being aware of the feeling of certain clothing, observation, obviously, and instinct. The first scene we filmed was the first one in the movie, the scene at my father’s grave. I waited until the camera was rolling and then had to walk away.
I was also impressed with your American accent and way of speaking — very different from the American accent you did in “The Jane Austen Book Club.”
It was as much about figuring out the voice as the accent. What I worked on was the delivery and tonality that is fairly typical of that condition. Getting that right and getting the rhythms right is what really mattered.
Tell me about what made you want to do this film.
What drew me to it was the way the character was treated, as a character as a bunch of symptoms. He is not labeled, until a good third of the way into the film, so you get to know him before you hear what his diagnosis is.
I understand that you and your fiancee, Claire Danes, have now both played characters with Asperger Syndrome.
She plays Temple Grandin [a real-life high-functioning autistic who has written and lectured widely] in an HBO biopic. I had already finished this film before she took the role, so we shared research and we discussed both characters with each other.
Rose, Adam is such an unusual and fascinating character that it must have been a challenge to make Beth and her concerns carry as much weight in the story. How did you make that work?
Beth had a crappy relationship with guys and a father who was overbearing and larger than life. Adam was the antithesis of all the people she was exposed to. And it was important that the romance took a while. That helped to make her role in the story stronger.
I was very interested in the way Beth’s clothes helped to convey her character. How did you work with the costume designer to determine what would best tell her story?
We talked about it a lot. Alysia Raycraft designed the costumes and she jumped at the chance to be creative with Beth and a little eccentric with the clothing. Beth favors vintage clothing, second hand things. We are a little surprised when we see how wealthy her parents’ home is because her clothes and apartment show that she has eschewed her middleclass-ness. A lot of the clothes were mine. Prada heels weren’t in the budget!
Max Mayer is the writer/director behind the sensitive and insightful new film, “Adam,” the story of a young man with Asperger Syndrome (Hugh Dancy) who is befriended by his new neighbor (Rose Byrne). He is an exceptionally thoughtful and engaging person and I truly loved talking with him about the film.
Tell me how this film came about.
I listened to an NPR radio show with a young man who had Asperger Syndrome, talking about his challenges, how the world seemed to him, about trying to figure out how to interact, how it felt when people nodded and smiled and he was feeling outside of the joke. I was really moved by that, and I am not that moved that often. I thought I should figure out what this is about and the more I learned the better it seemed a metaphor for human relations in general.
And then this guy started talking in my head. And the script began to come together.
Did you and the cast do a lot of research on Asperger Syndrome?
Yes. By chance, Hugh is engaged to Claire Danes and she did a movie about Temple Grandin [a well-known professor who has Asperger Syndrome]. So, Aspy is spoken here.
Many people with Asperger Syndrome become extremely focused on fact-intensive subjects, and in this film Adam is very knowledgeable about astronomy. Is that a particular specialty of yours?
The spaceman metaphor happened organically. I’ve always been interested in cosmology and astronomy, but as soon as it becomes mathematical I can’t do it any more. And it is always on the list of interests for people with Asperger Syndrome. It made sense to me that Adam’s dad would have gotten him a space suit that was a prize possession, and he would wear it not for fun or to pretend but because it was utterly logical and sensible to use.
How do you project yourself into the mind of someone whose thinking patterns are so different from those of a writer, who is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of being attuned to others?
I was a psychology major at college, but it was all about rats and chemicals so I retreated into theater. I was trained as an actor to begin by interpreting the text extremely literally. It’s the first time I’ve thought about this but that was part of why it felt easy to me to write this guy. It is so easy, especially for young actors, to read sarcasm or irony or some sort of off-kilter interpretation into the text and not investigate what the words mean, and that was beaten into us at NYU, to begin with just the words. And that is how Adam speaks.
The movie treats all of its characters with great tenderness.
When I first wrote it, it was a bit bleaker, he was more clearly on his own. But the people who read it said, “You can’t do that! Why was I watching this?” Then I tried it the other way and let them get back together, but I didn’t like it and had to figure out why I didn’t like it. It was like saying “just kidding” about the rest of the movie. I did want to say something positive about their development and make it clear that they had ended up some place that was a good place for them to be.
I got so enthralled with Adam that as I started to write it Beth was a little bit of a cipher. I had to round her out and round her parents out. I wanted to make sure everyone had a legitimate point of view. The father makes the point about care-taking, to give the stronger point of view in the voice of the heel. It needs somebody that good because it comes late in the movie structurally.
Central Park plays an important role in the film.
I love Central Park. And it is like Adam and Beth. Manhattan is a rock with buildings, and then there is this romantic splash of green in the middle. As they say in the film, they weren’t supposed to be there, but they were. It’s Adam’s place, a place he feels comfortable, in the midst of an unbelievably intimidating metropolis.
Your background is in theater, so as you begin to work in movies, who are some of the films and film-makers who influenced you?
“The Last Emperor, many of Stanley Kubrick’s movies, Hal Ashby’s movies, including “Being There” — some similarity to “Adam” in that one, “Midnight Cowboy,” “The Graduate,” the way some of the music in that film is used — and “Adam” has a scene where we see the characters reacting very differently to that movie. I was also influenced by playwrights like Sam Shepard, Eugne O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Shakespeare, of course, John Patrick Shanley.
What makes you laugh?
Miscomunication makes me laugh, “Who’s on first,” Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, George Carlin.
I can tell you are a writer — that answer is very word-oriented.
Theater is language-based. But what I love about movies is that I still feel like a freshman which is really great. Movie directing is every bit as good a job as it is cracked up to be, working with the actors and finding the moments. In movies, it doesn’t have to be replicable, you don’t have to get there every night, and after it is all over you get this unbelievable time called editing. When you are in the editing room, you can make them do it over and over, make them look at what you want them to look at, you never give it over to the actors. In the theater, you can go out for a smoke when the audience comes in. But in a movie, the director has the final word.
TOMORROW: Interview with Dancy and Byrne