Asperger’s syndrome—a mild form of autism that leaves linguistic functions unimpaired—didn’t make it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1994, 50 years after it was first described. (Perhaps the most important secular document in American life after the Constitution, the DSM monetizes and thus legitimizes our ever-shifting categories of mental illness: if your problem isn’t in the big book, it doesn’t exist and your insurance company won’t pay for treatment.) In the intervening 15 years, however, Asperger’s has taken off like a rocket. The diagnosis has become ubiquitous, and the diagnosed have formed their own identity movement. Pointing to the example of homosexuality, which was stricken from the DSM in 1973, “aspie pride” activists argue that they are in no way inferior to “neurotypicals,” just different.
It will be interesting to see how advocates of “neurodiversity” respond to Hollywood’s groundbreaking representation of their condition in the new romantic comedy Adam, which depicts a love affair between a handsome young aspie (Hugh Dancy) and the neurotypical girl next door (Rose Byrne). My guess—unsupported by any particular insight into Aspergerian psychology—is that opinion will split between those who embrace it as a sympathetic portrayal that might even help them get laid and those who reject it as a distorting and condescending Hollywood fairy tale that will encourage more “fake aspies” to self-diagnose. (Not unlike tribal Native Americans, aspies devote considerable energy to guarding the boundaries of their community against wannabes.)
The DSM’s diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s are complex but essentially boil down to a limited understanding of nonverbal expression and the demands of social reciprocity combined with an “encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus.” The condition, which is three to four times more prevalent among men than women, is seen by no one as the stuff from which ideal boyfriends are made. But this is not exactly the impression created by the film.
As written and directed by Max Mayer and played by cute-as-a-button Dancy, New Yorker Adam Raki is a sweet, self-deprecating man-child whose ability to compensate for his emotional deficits puts the average American lunkhead male to shame. Granted, Adam is prone to motormouthed pontification about his signature obsessions, but where real-world aspies frequently fixate on random and useless information (e.g., the serial numbers of household appliances, the global coordinates of sunken ships), Adam is consumed only by subjects that are culturally prestigious (the history of New York theater), marketable (electrical engineering), or both (astronomy). (Where I come from, intellectual range like this qualifies you as a renaissance man, not an obsessive.) Add to this the fact that Adam has retrofitted a working planetarium into the living room of his well-appointed brownstone apartment and it’s no surprise that his bland but pretty new neighbor, an elementary school teacher and aspiring children’s book illustrator named Beth Buchwald, should find herself warming to him even though he eats microwavable macaroni for dinner seven nights a week.
Plotwise, Adam is as prosaic and sentimental as romantic comedies come. Recently orphaned by the death of his father, Adam wouldn’t have a friend in the world if not for Harlan (The Wire‘s Frankie Faison), his dad’s folksy African-American army buddy. After Adam and Beth “meet cute” on the stoop of their shared building and again in the laundry room, Harlan goads Adam into courting her. Struggling to overcome his social phobias, Adam shows Beth his planetarium and introduces her to a family of raccoons living in nearby Central Park. Beth is dubious, but she’s eventually won over by his unvarying honesty and respectful willingness to wait for sex until she’s ready. (Neither of these traits popped up in my survey of the clinical literature on Asperger’s.) The course of their love is not always smooth, but her maternal patience and his oddball charm see them through the rough patches. Then potential disaster rears in the form of her overbearing parents. Her socialite mom (Amy Irving) harbors reservations about Adam, while dad (Peter Gallagher), a well-paid corporate suit, is dead certain he’s the wrong guy for his little girl. But dad’s moral authority is fast being undermined: he’s facing trial for shady accounting practices.
Compared to the toxic The Ugly Truth, which opened last week, Adam is a worthy successor to a genre classic like The Philadelphia Story. But like many films of its genre, it’s less interesting as a movie than as a map of gender relations and a diagram of idealized human desire. After seeing it I racked my brain for films that put a similarly positive spin on love and sex between a mentally impaired woman and a nonimpaired man. Other upbeat examples of mentally whole women bedding cognitively limited men were easy to come by. In Robert Zemeckis’s 1994 smash hit Forrest Gump, for instance, the mentally retarded Tom Hanks is tenderly relieved of his virginity by his longtime love object Robin Wright Penn. A comparably soft seduction occurs in Mike Nichols’s 1991 drama Regarding Henry, in which Harrison Ford plays a shitheel Manhattan attorney who’s cured of his type-A personality traits and philandering ways after an armed robber puts a bullet in his forebrain. After months of halting but considerate deportment on Ford’s part, his wife (Annette Benning) leads him trembling back to the marital bed, where they make love as if for the first time. (The neuroscience here is iffy: frontal lobe damage typically results in lowered, not raised, inhibitions.)
It’s fun to think about the political furor that would be unleashed by any film that hazarded an equivalent coupling with reversed gender roles. Soldier Alan Bates unproblematically pursues escaped asylum inmate Genevieve Bujold in Philippe de Broca’s twee 1966 fantasy King of Hearts, but since that’s one of the falsest films ever made about mental illness, it scarcely counts. Otherwise, I think it’s fair to say that sex and the simple girl are generally portrayed in an appropriately grim light, e.g., Jon Voight’s tragic dalliance with Crazy Annie (Jennifer Salt) in Midnight Cowboy (1969) or Eric Richard’s sordid seduction of a young retarded woman in Mike Leigh’s TV movie Home Sweet Home (1982).
What does this weird double standard tell us about relations between the sexes? Assuming that the makers of these movies know their business, apparently a certain percentage of the populace, probably mostly female, responds to the idea of a woman taking the sexual initiative with a man after a really, really long wait. Otherwise the question exceeds my own capacity for empathy, but then I’m surely not the one for whom this fantasy was crafted.
I hasten to add that in the real world, Asperger’s can’t and shouldn’t be equated with mental retardation or profound frontal lobe damage. Aspie forums on the Web indicate that romantic pairings between aspie men and neurotypical women are not at all uncommon. They also suggest that such relationships are a lot more difficult than the one depicted in Adam. Of course, so are most real-life relationships.