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January 2011



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First Published Thursday, 30 July 2009

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.”

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