"The Adam Project" digs into the essential sadness of Ryan Reynolds' heroes

Action comedy stars are common, but "The Adam Project" proves Reynolds' unique talent for smiling through sadness

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published March 11, 2022 7:00PM (EST)

The Adam Project (Doane Gregory/Netflix)
The Adam Project (Doane Gregory/Netflix)

Understanding why "The Adam Project" transcends its otherwise mundane action-adventure trappings requires comprehending the specifics of Ryan Reynolds' intergenerational appeal. That would seem a simple enough task: the man's been a bankable jokester since the runaway popularity of 2016's "Deadpool."

Many of his subsequent roles channel some crumbs of Wade Wilson's snark, including "The Adam Project," his other recent Netflix popcorn flick "Red Notice" and "The Hitman's Bodyguard" movies, both of which cast him as the second banana to bigger box office bosses (Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson, respectively).

Reynold's tart humor is assuredly present in Adam Reed, a pilot from 2050 who travels back to our present to enlist his scrawny 12-year-old self (played by Walker Scobell) on a Spielbergian mission to save the future.

Despite how this sounds, this is not my way of dismissing as Reynolds a one-note performer; in the vein of all blockbuster stars, he has a type at which he excels playing and endless ways of shading it. But being an action-comedy star is one skill set that any number of celebrities ply.

Reynolds' singular style, however, taps into a plausible, palpable sadness that "The Adam Project" capitalizes upon tremendously.

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His brand of low-key dolor has been central to his repertoire since "Deadpool," the story of a man who finds true love only to have it wrested from him — first by cancer, then by a horrific accident that disfigured him while also making him unkillable.

Post-"Deadpool," Reynolds became the movie hero who turns the cliché about laughing in the face of danger on its ear. "The Adam Project" demonstrates this by showing his and Scobell's versions of Adam being frequently run down by danger, losing to danger, enduring danger punching them in the face. Then the one-liners and physical gags gush forth, along with the liquid scarlet.

In 2022 Adam is a middle schooler who's small for his age and bullied by bigger more aggressive kids, for which he compensates by wielding a very smart mouth. That only makes bullies pound him harder. But Adam and his mother Ellie (Jennifer Garner) are still mourning the death of his father Louis (Mark Ruffalo), a pain more lasting than his many bloody noses.

After his 2050 self crash-lands in his 2022 version's backyard, future Adam enlist his boy-self's help in altering a future where a greedy corporate titan, Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener), has destroyed the world with the very same time travel technology. Stopping Maya means completing a mission started by his wife Laura (Zoe Saldaña), who never returned from her leap to the past.

The plot's simplicity screams family movie, but not in the way one would typically define such a thing. Better and more accurate would be to describe this story as intelligently inter-generational – kid friendly, and heartbreakingly understanding of what it's like for adults to look back at our immature selves with guilt and wishes to have done a few small things differently.

"The Adam Project" re-teams Reynolds with "Stranger Things" director Shawn Levy, who worked with him in 2021's video game comedy "Free Guy." Now there's a tale that masks the tragedy of its hero's lot in an endless barrage of jokes and bright colors: in that film, Reynolds plays the titular Guy, a cheerful non-playable video game character who doesn't realize his world isn't real, even after he develops self-awareness and falls in love.

But the slapstick humor and upbeat plot belies "Free Guy's" core tragedy, which is the fact that Guy and his NPC friends can never full know what it is to be human — although that express pursuit is literally written into their code.

Reynolds' melancholic challenge in "The Adam Project" is to change just enough of the past to prevent destroying our existence's integrity. That means resisting the urge to prevent personal calamities.

This goes beyond the standard time travel "butterfly effect" rules, essentially accepting anguish as catalyst for growth. Some version of this philosophy informs every rendition of action hero machismo; here, it manifests both sensitively and sensibly … through Scobell.

The young performer landed the job in part by sharing he'd memorized "Deadpool 2" including, apparently, all of Reynolds' physical quirks. His interpretation of kid Adam matches Reynolds' version flawlessly while establishing where adult Adam's heartbreak first metastasizes. He's as much of a sarcastic joke-slinger as the man he matures into. And as that adult points out to his kid version, that's not always a virtue.

This aspect of the journey makes "The Adam Project" worth watching, more than the polished visual effects, the crisp action choreography or the clever repartee. Those details are simple to construct and go down as easily as they're intended to.

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Certainly there's a vicarious joy to be had in watching Scobell's Adam enjoy physical proof that his life gets better — at least in the sense that he ages into a jacked physique and becomes the type of weapons-proficient badass heretofore only found in his comic books and video games.

But Reynolds makes his Adam a man weighed down by grief, the fresh kind and of a nature that feels novel to his boy self. Granted, this is all wrapped in Reynolds' signature joke-setup-joke packaging – only doubled, since Scobell's Adam serves up irreverence as good as his sarcastic thirty-something self. But other actors' contributions confer a weight to the story that balances out the frivolity.

Ruffalo, in particular, leverages his relatively short screentime by filling Louis with a depth of feeling designed to get our tears flowing. Among all of Reynolds' other Marvel universe-affiliated co-stars, Ruffalo's part is written with the most complexity. Garner and Saldana are shortchanged in comparison, emphasizing the story's focus on fathers and sons rather than aiming for a broader view of how life choices and time impact relationships.

Disappointing as that choice may be, it wasn't egregious enough to make me regret the time spent with "The Adam Project." Nor did it prevent relating to the movie's kinetic indulgence in wishful thinking through this version of Reynold's tragic fool, a man who realizes that the parts of his past that he can't change are pieces his angry boy version can. They're the very mistakes anyone who has loved and lost would alter, if only they could.

"The Adam Project" is currently streaming on Netflix.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Jennifer Garner Mark Ruffalo Netflix Review Ryan Reynolds The Adam Project