Asperger's: Hollywood's new black?

Films like "Adam" present autism-spectrum characters as real people. Cool! But do the movies have to be so lame?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 29, 2009 11:29PM (EDT)

Rose Byrne and Hugh Dancy in "Adam."
Rose Byrne and Hugh Dancy in "Adam."

Fox Searchlight/Julia Griner

Rose Byrne and Hugh Dancy in "Adam."

If there's a problem with the way American movies depict people with Asperger's syndrome and other autism-spectrum disorders, it certainly doesn't stem from a lack of sympathy or from bad intentions. If anything, it's the other way around: Movies like the new indie drama "Adam," which stars Hugh Dancy as a newly orphaned adult man with Asperger's embarking on a tentative love affair with a non-Asperger's or NT ("neurotypical") woman, walk so gingerly through the minefield of representational politics, and take their educational function so seriously, that they don't have any time or energy left to be, you know, movies.

As has become traditional since the days of Dustin Hoffman's Oscar-winning turn as an autistic savant in "Rain Man," the acting in "Adam" is outstanding, and no one could possibly argue with what you might call its message: People with Asperger's are individuals like other people, and as such they are uncontainable and subject to change. A handsome young British actor with supreme technique, Dancy captures what might be called typical aspects of Asperger's, while still drawing Adam as a distinctive personality. (I've never seen "Mozart and the Whale," a 2005 romance with Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell that's highly regarded in the autism/Asperger's community, but Sigourney Weaver was terrific as an autistic woman in the little-seen "Snow Cake.")

Adam is intelligent and well-educated, able to hold down a job as an electronics engineer and follow his obsessive astronomical hobby. But his ability to function in normative social settings is severely limited. He eats nothing but Amy's frozen macaroni-and-cheese, day after day. He observes a ruthlessly ordered daily routine and has never been outside Manhattan by himself. He can't make reliable guesses about other people's body language or subjective emotional states. He labors to learn the codes and signals of the NT world, but has difficulty calibrating them. After inviting his comely upstairs neighbor, Beth (Rose Byrne), to watch the raccoons feeding in Central Park at midnight, he asks her, "When we were sitting on that bench, were you sexually excited? Because I was." Beth abruptly realizes she's got to get back to that library book.

Some of the better moments in writer-director Max Mayer's script come from precisely that kind of observation: Adam is able to understand the literal content of human interactions -- after all, the question of whether or not Beth was sexually excited is highly relevant to their possible future -- but cannot master their more ambiguous shades. Later, when Beth asks him, "Adam, can you give me a hug?" he simply says yes and stands there for a long moment. She has asked him a question -- is he capable of giving her a hug? -- and he has answered. Later still, after the question of Beth's degree of arousal has been answered in the affirmative, she explains that she broke up with her last boyfriend "because he slept with other people while we were together." Adam looks baffled, and she realizes she has to unpack that a little. He understands that "slept with" is a figure of speech. But does he understand that "while we were together" does not mean that the dude was shagging other girls while she was in the room?

It's also a nice touch that Beth is depicted as a socially awkward only child from a privileged family, and hence a little closer to the autism spectrum than most NTs. I'm one of those only children myself, and I'm not suggesting that the similarity has any scientific validity. But kids who spend a lot of time alone, playing in fantasy worlds of their own devising, are more likely to feel an instinctive sympathy for others whose solitude is more neurological than physical. Beth's push-pull relationship with Adam is also defined by this sense of kinship; she understands his social limitations better than another non-Asperger's woman might, but having established herself in the "normal" world, she isn't so sure she wants to be dragged into his.

Even a cursory glance at the online community of people with Asperger's and autism-related disorders makes it clear that there's considerable excitement around "Adam." Depicting a fully plausible (if not seamless or easy) love affair between a person with Asperger's and an NT is clearly a step forward in normalizing our society-wide fascination with a set of disabilities that seem -- at least in terms of anecdotal visibility -- to be on the rise, and have often gotten people labeled as weirdos or freaks.

I'm sorry to report that beyond that educational element and the delicate performances of Dancy and Byrne, I found "Adam" dramatically limp, predictable and in a curious way even retrograde. Autistic and Asperger's characters in movies are only beginning to move beyond the "Sidney Poitier phase," in which members of previously despised or misunderstood minorities are presented as symbols, saints or seers -- whose most important function is to provide other, more relatable and "normal" characters with the opportunity for moral and spiritual growth. African-Americans, gays and American Indians have already enjoyed this dubious cinematic-shaman role, which is undeniably superior to old-fashioned bigotry but a long way short of actual equality.

I understand that filmmakers are caught between a rock and a hard place in depicting this issue. If you make a thriller in which a serial killer or a child molester just happens to be a person with Asperger's, it would be seen as resuscitating ugly and untrue stereotypes. So instead we get a subdued, minor-key weeper, utterly conventional and glum, in which an Asperger's/non-Asperger's couple teach each other valuable life lessons. By contrast, Peter Gallagher and Amy Irving virtually steal the movie in a handful of scenes as Beth's rich, troubled suburban parents. They don't have any diagnosable neurological conditions; they're just interesting, tragic, borderline-sympathetic assholes, whose relationship has a richness and a moral ambivalence that's totally lacking from Adam and Beth's. I wish Mayer had made a film about them instead.

I have no problem with art that is openly didactic, that sets out to impart moral instructions or lessons about society. From Sophocles to Dickens to "Boston Legal," much of the best popular culture has sprung from a pedagogical and/or activist impulse. You also can't blame people with Asperger's and autism, or their families, from seeking cultural affirmation. But let's also demand some more complicated storytelling here, people. Despite one angry emotional outburst -- also the one moment when Dancy's performance seems too closely modeled on a handbook of Asperger's symptoms -- Adam comes off as a saintly bore. He could have been, I don't know, a corrupt stock-market tycoon, a serial heartbreaker, a house-music impresario or a meth dealer.

After all, Asperger's and autism are just new labels for phenomena that stretch back deep into human history. It has been suggested that historical individuals like Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Thomas Jefferson may have been autistic, for example (and there can be little doubt about the classical pianist Glenn Gould). What about a certain fictional Prince of Denmark, who is intellectually brilliant but seems emotionally detached from ordinary life and unable to connect with those around him? For my money, TV shows like "House," "Monk" and "Big Bang Theory" -- which have been purposefully coy about whether their difficult protagonists have autism-spectrum disorders -- do more to expand the personality range of popular culture than a carefully measured and labeled infotainment product like "Adam."

"Adam" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with wide national release to follow on Aug. 28.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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