I feel like as a pretentious film guy who ranks The Worst Person in the World as his favorite movie of 2021 it’s my solemn duty to speak ill of a filmmaker like Shawn Levy. He makes movies that are big, kind, and decidedly for all audiences. The humor is broad and the direction purposefully functional. Art house cinema, his work is not. And yet… something about his films really speaks to me.
Last summer, I took my son, Logan, to see Free Guy (he turns 4 tomorrow). It absolutely delighted him. He laughed and clapped nearly the entire time. He loved it enough that I surprised him at Halloween by dressing as Blue Shirt Guy. For a riff on Grand Theft Auto, Free Guy is about as warm and inviting as studio comedies get these days. Much of the rest of Levy’s filmography is similarly effective. I cannot help myself but have warm memories about the simple thrills of the Night at the Museum films or the robotic Rocky riff, Real Steel.
I watched The Adam Project with my son and my daughter (who turned 18 months earlier this week). My girl, Astra, sat happily for the vast majority of the film – the longest she’s paid attention to a live action film. My son was delighted the whole time. And I think it’s because Shawn Levy has managed to find the old Amblin formula of all age friendly adventure better than nearly anyone else.
The Adam Project is about a pilot from the future named – can you guess? – Adam (Ryan Reynolds, Free Guy, Deadpool), who travels back in time to find his fellow time traveling wife and accidentally ends up meeting his twelve year old self (screen neophyte Walker Scobell). The two Adams have a great comedic chemistry together as Reynolds’ trademark sass is played a few levels sweeter than usual. Reynolds can be an actor of great warmth, but it’s a gear he rarely uses. I don’t think Definitely, Maybe is a particularly great film, but I do think Reynolds gives a very good performance as a single dad trying to explain his romantic history to his daughter. It’s nice to see him bring back that sort of texture to his performance here. Reynolds has always been blessed with extremely expressive eyes, and when he uses them to convey compassion he can subtle devastate. I actually think this film might be Reynolds’ finest performance.
Much of The Adam Project’s success derives from the way it pairs Reynolds off with an array of excellent scene partners. Reynolds’ love interest is played by the ever underutilized Zoe Saldaña (Guardians of the Galaxy, Avatar). Saldaña remains an exceptional action performer and has genuinely electric chemistry with Reynolds. In our era of sexless blockbusters, I was incredibly enthused to see that the first thing Reynolds and Saldaña do with a moment of down time is, ahem, re-acquaint themselves with one another. Human beings are driven by sexuality! So too should our movie characters.
Jennifer Garner is a wonderful actress who is too often relegated to thankless maternal roles. Here she plays a mom and, in the grand Amblin tradition, a newly single widowed parent at that. The film is smart enough to make time to give her an internal life outside of the way her twelve year old son sees her. One effective sequence sees Reynolds offer kindly parenting advice to his own mother at a pub. In concept, it’s sort of a silly manipulative scene. Yet in the hands of a performer as smart as Garner the repartee takes on a surprising amount of nuance. Their conversation serves as a far broader reflection on the way parents have to put on a front to protect their children from the harsher realities of the world.
The film kicks into a different emotional gear in the last act as the two Adams are forced to travel back in time yet again to stop their father from creating time travel. “You’ve seen Terminator, right? That’s 2050 on a good
day.” Reynolds-Adam helpfully explains about his timeline. Plot echoes of Back to the Future and Terminator 2: Judgment Day give way to something more baleful as the leads are forced to reckon quite directly with how the loss of a father affected each. Mark Ruffalo (Avengers, Foxcatcher) is perfectly suited to bring the emotional heft to these scenes with limited screen time.
Production values are strong. The special effects are sufficiently magical, and the film mostly avoids the chintzy green screen look that’s so pervasive in streaming releases. The action is well shot with long takes and easily comprehensible spatial dynamics. And the humor largely works including one guffaw inducing meta reference to Reynolds’ most well known role.
I have some complaints. The great Catherine Keener is underused as a villain. The pacing feels a bit off, almost as though the film’s third act starts a bit prematurely. The story is pretty flagrantly manipulative. That said, I’m not sure I care. Scores of films every single year overtly attempt to play on my emotions – this one got me. Maybe I’m just a sap trying to watch the movie through the eyes of my son, but that’s certainly not the worst thing in the world.
The Adam Project launches on Netflix worldwide on March 11, 2022.