Max Mayer's Adam is a confident, sure-footed dramatic comedy revolving around a tentative romance.
Adam Raki (Hugh Dancy) is a quiet, seemingly insular young man whom we first see at his father's funeral, standing alone in a crowd and clutching a neatly folded flag. In time, we learn that Adam has a particular interest in astronomy and can discourse in dizzying detail about a universe that's expanding faster than the speed of light. But before that, what strikes us first is how constricted Adam's own universe is.
His freezer is stuffed with rows of identical boxes of frozen macaroni and cheese, his cupboard with what looks like a 100-year supply of All-Bran. He sits on his living room sofa straight as a board, fists balled in his lap, looking more like a patient in a dentist's waiting room than someone relaxing at home. While at work as an electrical engineer at a small Manhattan toy company, he greets everyone politely, then sequesters himself in his cubicle, immersed in the innerworkings of a talking doll.
Is Adam dense? Tense? Preoccupied? Well, all of the above, in a way — but in a larger sense, none. Adam has Asperger's syndrome, a sort of high-functioning autism (though there's some debate as to whether it's really part of the autism spectrum). People with Asperger's display normal or high intelligence, often with special interest in a particular subject, but a lack of social skills and empathy with others, as well as difficulty adjusting to change.
And change comes fast in Adam. Our title character meets the new neighbor in his apartment building, Beth Buchwald (Rose Byrne), when she introduces herself in the basement laundry room and asks if she can use his pass card for the washing machine. After a second's hesitation, Adam agrees; the look on his face — thanks to Dancy's excellent performance — shows that his space has been invaded, but that he doesn't mind, and is surprised by that.
Adam also gets laid off, in a scene that underlines the difficulty people with Asperger's have with ordinary figures of speech: When his boss says, "I have to let you go," Adam responds, "Let me go? I don't want to go!"
Losing his father and job and discovering an attraction to Beth add up quickly, and coping with it all forces Adam to draw on internal resources that he never knew he had. In this, he has the support of Harlan (Frankie Faison), a former Army buddy of his father who instinctively understands Adam and advises him on ways to deal with people.
Adam also has the help of Beth, who first finds him intriguing, then disconcerting, then endearing. As she and Adam grow closer, Beth (who is coming off a hurtful breakup) finds that Adam is drawing her out of her own shell almost as much as she is drawing him out of his. But when Beth's father (Peter Gallagher) runs into legal trouble, it throws her growing intimacy with Adam into relief, and his inability to empathize exasperates her. Neither of them copes well with the resulting strain, and they emerge from the crisis in unexpected ways.
Mayer's script runs counter to our romance-movie expectations, but without leaving us feeling cheated. Mayer's resolution has the sweet, rueful ring of truth.