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Why 'The Adam Project' is a different kind of Ryan Reynolds project

Adam (Ryan Reynolds) and Young Adam (Walker Scobell) spend <em>The Adam Project</em> needling each other in a timestack.
Netflix
Adam (Ryan Reynolds) and Young Adam (Walker Scobell) spend The Adam Project needling each other in a timestack.

The Adam Project is a light, clever, consummately PG-13 time-travel yarn about Adam (Ryan Reynolds), a pilot from the future, who travels back in time to prevent [REDACTED] from [REDACTED]ing — only to overshoot and wind up further in the past than planned. He's forced, for reasons that do not stand up to even the breeziest moment of reflection, to enlist the aid of his 12-year-old self (a legitimately funny, bracingly unprecocious Walker Scobell), thereby risking precisely the kind of time paradox that time-travel films cannot exist without risking.

Understand: In terms of moviemaking, no genre is redefined, here; no game gets changed. But the Netflix film is a relatively streamlined affair that moves at a gratifyingly brisk clip, wasting little time on backstory (or forwardstory, or alternatetimelinestory, for that matter). It manages to feel intimate, as it never leaves its setting in present-day Rainier, Washington, where Young Adam and his mother (Jennifer Garner!) share one of those gorgeous glass-walled houses nestled deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest that instantly transforms The Adam Project into a two-screen experience because you'll find yourself envy-surfing Zillow listings on your phone while you watch. Its cast is low-key terrific (Catherine Keener as the villain! Zoe Saldana as Adam's (very) close ally! Mark Ruffalo as Adam's dad!), and Reynolds and Scobell have an easy, unforced chemistry.

Let's talk Ryan Reynolds, you and me. And why The Adam Project feels like a small but significant — and possibly even hopeful — departure for him.

The film's fine — pretty good, actually. It's a very deliberate, if at times too-dutiful, homage to movies like Back to the Future, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and, especially, Flight of the Navigator. Recommended, if you and your kids are looking for something to pass a gray March weekend afternoon.

But that's not what I've called you all here to discuss.

Let's talk Ryan Reynolds, you and me. And why The Adam Project feels like a small but significant — and possibly even hopeful — departure for him.

The Van Wilder effect

Look: Ryan Reynolds is a star. He's handsome, charismatic, fit and funny.

That magnetic star quality was evident as far back as his ABC sitcom, Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place, which debuted in 1998 and ran for four uneven seasons. On that show, he first locked into a persona that solidified around him in the 2002 film Van Wilder: The Popular Guy.

Y'all remember The Popular Guy from school. He was most likely a jock, possibly even a quarterback, but not the meat-headed kind that'd push you and your fellow nerds into lockers. No, he was the other kind of jock, the kind that wasn't looking for a career in the NFL, but only trying to gain some leadership experience and expand his extracurriculars.

The poster for National Lampoon's Van Wilder.
/ Lionsgate
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Lionsgate

He carried himself with a confidence that he always worried might get mistaken for cockiness or swagger, so he took pains to keep in check. He cracked jokes, sure, but was always careful not to cut anyone down. Teachers loved him, students envied him. He was on a first-name basis with the custodian, with whom he talked car-racing; the lunch-servers snuck him extra tater tots. He went out of his way to ask to sign your yearbook at graduation, though you'd never talked to each other; when you read it later, you found that he'd left his number and invited you over to his house to swim at his pool over the summer. You knew that this was just a cruel joke that he and his friends were pulling, and you had just a scosh too much self-respect to ever actually make that phone call, yet it's true that the first time you read his note, you flushed with a stupid kind of excitement, imagining for one magical instant that you'd somehow fundamentally misread the previous four miserable years of high school and okay I now realize what I'm describing may have been something less than a universal experience and more of a Me Thing so uh let me get back on track and refocus on my original thesis.

Again and again, he's chosen roles that highlight what comes easiest to him: Witty banter, mischievous humor, ingratiating charm. And he's carefully blended it with something that comes much less naturally: A pitched self-deprecation we can tell is a put-on, a carefully calculated gambit to win us over and convince us that he's just a regular guy.

Anyway: Ryan Reynolds, Popular Guy.

Again and again, he's chosen roles that highlight what comes easiest to him: Witty banter, mischievous humor, ingratiating charm. And he's carefully blended it with something that comes much less naturally: A pitched self-deprecation we can tell is a put-on, a carefully calculated gambit to win us over and convince us that he's just a regular guy.

He's not of course; he's Ryan Reynolds, movie star.

But there's a difference between choosing roles suited to your gifts and using your gifts to force roles into suiting yourself. The Ryan Reynolds who starred in The Hitman's Bodyguard and Red Notice and Green Lantern and R.I.P.D. and The Change-Up and 6 Underground and The Proposal and the Deadpool films is essentially the same guy, cracking jokes (or, in the case of the Deadpool films, making references) and coasting on trickster charm.

Movie stars possess and exploit definable personae, to be sure. And certainly the actor has made efforts to stretch into more grounded territory before (Buried, Woman in Gold). But Reynolds' growing reliance on his repertoire of easily recognizable actorly tics has caused something to happen.

Too easily, and too often, his natural charm can spill over into off-putting smarm. His wittiness can read as mere glibness. That cockiness he's so careful to couch in performative, over-compensating self-deprecation can leak out and reveal itself to the world.

Last year's wildly overwrought Free Guy — Reynolds' previous pairing with The Adam Project director Shawn Levy — attempted to correct for all this by having him play a literal computer-generated cipher, a background video game character (just a regular guy, named: Guy) who gets upgraded and leveled up into a hero.

Ryan Reynolds as Big Adam and Jennifer Garner as Ellie in <em>The Adam Project.</em>
/ Doane Gregory/Netflix
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Doane Gregory/Netflix
Ryan Reynolds as Big Adam and Jennifer Garner as Ellie in The Adam Project.

The Adam Project as acting project

Make no mistake: The Ryan Reynolds on display in The Adam Project is a familiar one. He's funny in the way he usually is, he's handsome and buff and charismatic as ever.

But the reason his performance works as well as it does is that he doesn't lunge at it, in the way we've come to expect him to. Consequently, the film feels slightly less like the Ryan Reynolds vehicle it was no doubt conceived to be. He hasn't disappeared into the role of time-traveling pilot Adam by any means, he's just doing a bit less obvious, outward work to embody it.

Perhaps it's a function that Adam is a smaller, less antic character than the ones Reynolds usually assays — he's more purpose-driven, sadder. Maybe it's that the script gives him more moments to breathe as an actor, as in an emotional scene he shares with Garner in a bar. It's a scene that risks coming off as sentimental, even syrupy, and that's probably why it lands so nimbly — because we can see Reynolds actually risking something in it.

The Adam Project, as pleasantly slight as it is, gestures toward a career trajectory the actor might enjoy in the years to come, after that jawline softens, that tight bod inevitably enDaddens itself, and his characteristic brio settles into the less effortful confidence of middle-age.

It's also possible that the performance works because so much of it exists in the interplay between the two Adams — Reynolds and Scobell. In their many scenes together, Reynolds allows his familiar, keyed-up, outward persona to recede, in order to really listen to the other, younger actor, who doesn't so much steal focus as confidently accept it. (The kid's terrific, really.)

There's yet another Deadpool on the way, where Reynolds will find himself back on his home, Glib 'n' SmarmyTM turf. But The Adam Project, as pleasantly slight as it is, gestures toward a career trajectory the actor might enjoy in the years to come, after that jawline softens, that tight bod inevitably enDaddens itself, and his characteristic brio settles into the less effortful confidence of middle-age.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.