Max Mayer’s new film Adam, the story of an astronomy-obsessed Asperger’s sufferer played by Hugh Dancy, spotlights a syndrome that some say affected geniuses from Mozart to Einstein.
The history of Asperger’s syndrome in the American cinema is probably not substantial enough to warrant its own course in a university film department. The oeuvre includes Mozart and the Whale, a little-known Josh Hartnett vehicle that went straight to video in 2005, and now Adam, a romantic dramedy, which opens today. And that seems to be it.
After all, this high-functioning variation of autism—named for the late Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, who first investigated the disorder in the 1940s and may have been a sufferer himself—wasn’t widely accepted as a clinical diagnosis until the early 1990s.
“Actually, as I learned about it, I realized I might have known some people with it,” Adam’s writer-director Max Mayer told me Tuesday night at a celebrity-strewn party for the movie, hosted by Andrew Saffir’s Cinema Society and Brooks Brothers at the rooftop bar of the Gramercy Park Hotel. “I worked at a camp for emotionally disturbed kids when I was 20 or 21—the Ramapo Anchorage Camp in Rhinebeck, New York. The diagnosis of Asperger’s didn’t exist back then, but now I realize I had some experience with kids who had Asperger’s.”
“I am left with the melancholy sensation that my life has been spent in a perpetual state of parallel play, alongside, but distinctly apart from, the rest of humanity,” one Asperger’s sufferer observed.
Damages star Rose Byrne—whose character in Adam, a “neuro-typical” aspiring children’s book writer, falls for her astronomy-obsessed, Asperger’s-suffering downstairs neighbor, played by Hugh Dancy—said she, too, has been up close and personal with the disorder. “I have a family friend who had Asperger’s, so I had known about it already,” the Australian beauty told me. “If you ask around, a lot of people are touched by it—it’s really common. And there are cases of people who are incredibly brilliant who have it.”
Fox Seachlight President Stephen Gilula—who is budgeting a strong promotional campaign for Adam, which he snapped up for a reported $1.5 million at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—thinks he just might know some Asperger’s sufferers, too. “When you reflect back on people’s behavior, sometimes I wonder now,” he said.
The syndrome—a pattern of symptoms that Dr. Asperger identified among his young patients—can include impaired social interaction; extreme literal-mindedness marked by an inability to interpret the nuances of meaning, body language, and emotion; obsessive, pedantic preoccupation with a single subject; a fondness for repetitive ritual; physical clumsiness; and, often, very high intelligence. As a line of dialogue in the movie suggests, Mozart and Einstein are among the geniuses sometimes claimed by the Asperger’s community. “I’m not Forrest Gump, you know,” Dancy’s title character wryly complains when Byrne’s character, Beth, presents him with a box of chocolates.
My friend and former Washington Post colleague Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic, has written movingly—and fascinatingly—about his own struggle with the disorder. “I am left with the melancholy sensation that my life has been spent in a perpetual state of parallel play, alongside, but distinctly apart from, the rest of humanity,” Page observed. “From early childhood, my memory was so acute and my wit so bleak that I was described as a genius—by my parents, by our neighbors, and even, on occasion, by the same teachers who gave me failing marks. I wrapped myself in this mantle, of course, as a poetic justification for behavior that might otherwise have been judged unhinged, and I did my best to believe in it.”
Page’s article in The New Yorker served as source material for writer-director Mayer in his research for the screenplay. But why was he attracted to Asperger’s in the first place? “Actually I heard a radio interview with a young man on NPR—I think Fresh Air—and he was talking about how life seemed to him, and his challenges, and I got very moved,” Mayer said. “When you get very moved as a writer, you better check that out.” He paused to hug Amy Irving, who plays Rebecca Buchwald, the mother of Byrne’s character. (The only casting stretch—for me, anyway—was the otherwise excellent Peter Gallagher as Irving’s husband Marty, a Yiddish-flaunting Jewish accountant from Westchester.)
“For me,” Mayer went on, “[his attraction to Asperger’s] probably had something to do with being an only child with a certain kind of observer stance in the world. And I was also, at that time, in a marriage that was on the way to falling apart—not based on anybody’s fault, but based on communication issues. So I think I was trying to find a way to write about that, and the more I learned about Asperger’s, the better metaphor it felt like for human relationships in general.”
I don’t know if Adam will be a box-office monster like Rain Man or the aforementioned Forrest Gump, but I found it involving and entertaining, graced by an Oscar-buzz-worthy performance from Dancy (who was busy schmoozing with friends, relatives, his girlfriend Claire Danes, and fans like Gerard Butler). There’s not much more one can ask of a movie.
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.