The Adam Project
If you’re going to rely on a pint-sized performer for much of your dramatic/comedic heft in a movie, you’d better be damn sure you’ve picked one with the right stuff. Which means a kid who can not only hit their marks, but is also abundant in personality. The latter, a Mac Culkin, is a relative rarity, so the quest to find someone for The Adam Project who could approximate a young Ryan Reynolds was always going to be iffy, particularly when he’s required to spit out Reynolds-patented smart-mouthed quips (sample: “Hello Derek. You have a wonderful mouth mullet. You must be proud“). Walker Scobell is a perfectly accomplished technical performer, but he’s a vacuum at the heart of a movie that has enough problems to be getting on with anyway.
Director Shawn Levy’s switch from comedies to FX-heavy action escapades has been a mixed bag; let’s say he can be relied upon for an anonymously serviceable job, though, and give him that much credit. Free Guy, for a good span of its running time, works pretty well, successfully blending the humour and laughs. This reteam with Reynolds – they’re also making Deadpool 3 together, so how long before Ryan’s confirmed for Levy’s in-development Starman remake? – is much less successful. Probably because, conceptually, it’s somewhat shrivelled and derivative in a manner that explicitly fails to play to its star’s strengths (sincerity is not Reynolds’ best face).
Four credited writers – you just know the quips are from an uncredited fifth – couldn’t come up with a decent explanation for the movie’s time-travel conceit. They’re all reasonably experienced too. TS Nowlin (The Maze Runners) furnished the spec script, which was worked on by Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin (Wimbledon, Nim’s Island), and then Jonathan Tropper (Banshee). Nowlin takes the blame for the overfamiliar premise, then: “Time travel exists. You just don’t know it”.
This starting block leads to Reynolds’ Adam Reed v.2050 travelling back in time to prevent dad Louis (Mark Ruffalo) from inventing time travel, which has given Louis’ colleague Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener) huge wads of power. (Okay, to be exact, Adam is looking for disappeared-in-the-past wife Laura – Zoe Saldaña – who, once located, presses him into taking on the time-travel mission). En route, he crash-lands and meets Adam Reed v.2022. It’s The Terminator meets Frequency meets First Contact meets Back to the Future. Which is to say, nothing about the plot ever seems sufficiently original in its own right, and Levy isn’t the guy to give it an added spark of distinctiveness.
Not helping any is that time travel here is a shameless fudge, taking account of theoretical inconsistencies – “It’s not a multiverse! My God, we watch too many movies” – while barely even attempting to paper over them: “Prevailing wisdom [read: plot convenience] is that when I go back to my fixed time, my memory… our memories, they reform, they reconcile, but now while I’m here”.
So you can do as you please and not worry about instant repercussions, basically. Liberating, or lazy? I know which I’d pick. There are other similar get outs, like not worrying about killing people because of some blah about dying outside of your fixed time (“There’s only one place in time where you belong on a quantum level”). And everything ends in a big explosion, while also taking care to contrive a “touching”, faux-Field of Dreams generational farewell scene, a faux-Doc Brown scene (“Don’t tell me how it happens”) and a faux-Heaven Can Wait scene (v.2050 Adam and Laura meet for the first time).
Adam v.2022 is fed some technobabble nonsense to show how bright he is (about someone going back and altering the timestream), but it only serves to add to his irritation factor. As casting coups go, this is closer to the urchin from Last Action Hero than, say, the oeuvre of Shane Black. He’s an annoying little tyke. Which he’s supposed to be, I guess, but that isn’t especially entertaining, less still viable when it comes to the “moving” scenes. It’s also very obvious Reynolds came up with much of his dialogue, some of which wouldn’t land even if he was delivering them: gags about a “bad man touched me” invoke Netflix mainstay paedophilia (see Cuties, or don’t) – perhaps why Pete Townshend plays over the end credits – and queasily include a twelve-year-old boy obsessing over sex “Do I get laid?”
Like Reynolds, Levy’s fine when it comes to empty sentiment, but don’t push him any further towards something genuine. The Adam Project is much, much too lightweight for attempts at emotional depth (“You know, thirty years, you still get sick to your stomach remembering how you treat her now”: Jennifer Garner, thrown away as Adam’s mum). Oh, and the usual distant-dad guilt trip: “You were always more interested in the universe than your own son”. Ouch.
Then you’ve got the problem of Sleepy Mark trotting out his mumble-tramp act for the umpteenth time. I used to think Ruffalo was a fine actor, but now he invariably makes me groan whenever he yawn-stifles his way on screen. Like Scobell, he’s given Reynolds lines – “You look like a condom with buttons” – but gags that just about work for Ryan Reynolds most definitely do not when everyone gets to say them. There are also two different versions of Catherine Keener, the de-aged one not looking so much like her. Not quite Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy, but definitely not MCU quality.
Doubtless The Adam Project will be a big hit for Netflix – the last Ryan Reynolds movie on their slate, Red Notice, was – and I’ve seen Amblin invoked in respect of its sentimental sci-fi fantasy massaging. Given the current face of Amblin (Finch), that’s probably not too far wide of the mark, but it also isn’t a patch on their heyday. The Adam Project doesn’t care sufficiently to disguise its makeshift inner workings; it even seems proud of them.
First published by Now in Full Color on 13/03/22.