Call it a staple of Hollywood screenwriting: girl meets damaged boy.
Call it a staple of Hollywood screenwriting: girl meets damaged boy. She is moved to reach out and care for him, perhaps rescue him in some fashion. Ditto for boy meets damaged girl. Incrementally and inextricably, both scenarios become matters of the heart and love is soon entangled with the impulse to help. As stories go, it's instantly familiar but also ripe with new and interesting permutations.
"Adam," written and directed by Max Mayer, is such a narrative. Beth (Rose Byrne), twenty-something, an aspiring writer of children's books, having just escaped a disastrous love affair, moves into an Upper West Side brownstone. Living in the building is Adam (Hugh Dancy), an electrical engineer who designs toys and also is consumed with origins of the universe. When they first meet, in the laundry room, it is inescapable that Adam's affect and responses are different. He doesn't respond to the normal cues of conversation. Beth is intrigued, for Adam also is bright and direct and sincere. What she soon learns is that his quirkiness is caused by Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism.
Though she comes to understand how Adam's Asperger's presents itself, she also recognizes a lovely human being. In slow motion she falls in love with him and he with her.
Beth also comes to understand that an aspect of the syndrome (at least in Adam's case) is an inability to feel empathy, or make straightforward contact, such as looking her in the eyes. Adam hears what others say, but he is unable to feel the subtext behind the words or detect humor or irony. What is said, he takes at face value, even if a sentence ends with a question mark.
Still, Beth moves forward, slowly involving Adam in her life, introducing him to her parents and to her friends. It's not easy for her or for Adam.
"Adam" is a small, sweet movie, wonderfully acted, and, to Mayer's credit, explores both characters. Clearly, it was tempting to make this Adam's story; Mayer resisted. Hence, Beth's ambivalence and personal qualities are nicely balanced with Adam's struggles. As well, there's a tangential story concerning Beth's affluent parents (Amy Irving and Peter Gallagher): her father is on trial for embezzlement, the family uncertain if he will go to prison.
"Adam" is a small nugget when compared to the decidedly shallow fare that is offered up during the late-summer doldrums. Mayer takes a decidedly obscure condition and treats it with insight and genuine humanity and creates a touching film that's worth seeing.
Hayao Miyazaki, the writer and director of "Ponyo," is one of the most revered filmmakers in Japan. His animated films have grossed millions; the 1997 "Princess Mononoke" was outsold only by "Titanic."
He also is one of the few remaining animators whose images are still hand-drawn, in contrast to computer-generated features such as "Shrek," "Wall-E" and, more recently, "Up."
"Ponyo" is a visual treat, displaying a style that is reminiscent of early Disney, the colors vibrant while creating a soft, less-delineated yet pleasing effect.
Ultimately, however, the success of "Ponyo," at least for an American audience, rests with its narrative, which is a tad convoluted and drawn out, at least for younger moviegoers.
At its center, the film is a love story between a young boy, Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), and a small fish, Ponyo (Noah Cyrus). When Sosuke rescues Ponyo from the sea (she is trapped in a glass jar), she falls in love with him and wills herself to become human. Her decision has countless unintended consequences, involving her father, Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), a King Neptune of sorts, and her mother, Gran Mamare (Cate Blanchett).
And so the film spins off into a tsunami-like storm that results in Sosuke setting out, with Ponyo, to find his mother (Tina Fey).
While Disney has enthusiastically promoted "Ponyo" to American audiences as one more end-of-summer, animated movie, it is, in sum, a much different film, different in tone and dialogue.
In Japan, animation, also known as anime, is not just the province of children. Adults are completely taken with the genre, as they are with magna, which are illustrated stories, drawn in black and white. Magna comics can look like phone books, can be lengthy serials and are read intensely by a broad spectrum of Japanese society.
It is likely that Miyazaki had two audiences in mind when he wrote and directed "Ponyo," resulting in a story that seems, in the end, more slated for an older audience than children ages 6 to 9. Like most children's films, it does end with a moral — value loyalty, love and family above all else. But these lessons are lost in the complexity of the dialogue and the plot, tilting the narrative toward adults instead of children.
"Extract" is a joyless, moronic movie with an ersatz patina of charm and humor. That sounds harsh. But this film is pure disappointment.
Certainly it has a cast that could have taken even a mundane script and elevated it to something resembling entertainment. Justin Bateman, portraying Joel, an exasperated owner of an extract plant, possesses well-honed comedic talent. As does Mila Kunis, a talented actress who is used, essentially, for her cleavage and Bambi eyes. One of the best character actors working today, J.K Simmons, instantly recognizable from television and films (recently the father in "Juno"), is wasted as Joel's plant manager. Ben Affleck, a polished actor and director, has a throwaway role as a knucklehead bartender who gives new meaning to the concept of "best friend."
Extract quickly descends into a quagmire of silliness, and seems content to remain there, its plot not just stealthily insipid, but overtly dumb.
Because "Extract" is written and directed by Mike Judge ("Office Space," "King of the Hill," "Beavis and Butt-Head"), filmgoers arrive with the expectation that they will laugh. Not going to happen. There is not one moment in the film that will elicit even a grin. OK, someone will grin, maybe even laugh. Once.
It's tempting to speculate that Hollywood needs early September fillers before the serious movies arrive in late fall. But films such as "Extract" cost millions to make. If a studio is game to spend serious money to make a B-movie, with A-list actors, why not make a good B-movie with some depth and style? Cost is the same.