Shawn Levy’s “The Adam Project” is a Ryan Reynolds vehicle in that head-scratching vein of projects that dress themselves up as family movies but then push past the bounds of what’s often considered “family friendly”. For me it’s often hard to tell what audience these things are aiming for. Written by the team of Jonathan Topper, T.S. Nowlin, Jennifer Flackett, and Mark Levin, “The Adam Project” takes its playful spin on time travel and combines it with a surprisingly layered family drama. It’s all bound together by that all-too-familiar Ryan Reynolds brand of snappy irreverent comedy. Fans of his shtick will probably be onboard. Those wearied by the 45-year-old Canadian’s go-to high jinks may have a harder time.
In fairness, “The Adam Project” isn’t full-on Ryan Reynolds nuttiness. Levy pulls the reins back just a bit and tries to capture as much heart as humor. That’s a good thing because the likable Reynolds is usually at his best when he’s kept on his leash. Still, chunks of the script are written with his comedy act in mind meaning you’re guaranteed at least a variation of the same character type he almost always plays.
This time around Reynolds plays Adam Reed, a time-traveling fighter pilot from the year 2050. His story begins with the weirdly straightforward disclaimer: “Time travel exists. You just don’t know it yet.” From there, we see the wounded Adam flying his damaged “time jet” through a wormhole he creates as he frantically attempts to escape from the clutches of the film’s antagonist, Catherine Keener’s Maya Sorian (more on her later).
We then swing back to 2022 where Adam’s smart-mouthed 12-year-old self (played by newcomer Walker Scobell) spends more time suspended from school than in class. We learn it’s been over a year since his father Louis died in a car accident and young Adam is having a hard time adjusting. His mother Ellie (Jennifer Garner) does her best to fill the shoes of both parents, but she too is struggling to pick up the pieces. Despite being connected by a similar pain, they both feel miles apart.
Can you see where this is going? Older Adam accidentally crash-lands his jet in 2022 where he encounters his younger self. It turns out that time jets are tuned to the pilot’s DNA. But with older Adam injured, his jet won’t clear him to fly. So he recruits younger Adam to help him fix his plane so he can carry out his mission. What mission you ask? To travel to 2018 where he hopes to uncover the truth about his missing wife Laura (Zoe Saldaña). An ace time-hopper herself, Laura traveled back to 2018 against the wishes of her superiors and hasn’t been heard from since.
Inevitably we end up with older Adam and younger Adam traveling further back in time with the sinister Sorian (remember her) hot on their heels. And once there, the two Adams seek the help of their still alive father Louis (Mark Ruffalo), a college physics professor who happens to know a little about time travel. As the three work together to essentially save the world, they’re also given the opportunity to heal old wounds and truly appreciate the time they had together.
Underneath the good-looking action sequences, hit-or-miss humor, and out of the blue needle drops is a surprising amount of heart. Levy and company put a lot of effort into pulling us in emotionally as they use this unorthodox family dynamic to explore feelings of love, loss, grief, and regret just to name a few. And even if it’s pretty easy to see where it’s all heading, the movie still manages to hit you in your feels.
At the same time it’s hard to avoid the silliness, especially when the film starts going on about “magnetic particle accelerators”, a “diamond-hard neuromorphic processor”, or the “Infinitely Shifting Plasma Containing Algorithm”. And while there are several terrific action scenes, the visual effects aren’t always convincing (take the erratic digital de-ageing of one specific character – it’s bad). It’s also a bummer when Garner all but vanishes for most of the second half (she only has one meaningful scene with Ruffalo so sorry, no “13 Going on 30” reunion here).
“The Adam Project” might lean a little too heavy on the zany charisma of its lead actor, and it gets a little lazy going for cheap laughs (am I the only one tired of the ‘little kid throwing out profanity just for giggles’ device?). But there’s a fun story at the core of it all, and I challenge you not to be moved by where the story goes, specifically one heartfelt scene in the final minutes. It’s a moment that grounds the movie it makes all the frustrations a little easier to digest. “The Adam Project” premieres today on Netflix.