When Ryan Reynolds’ face or name pops up on a movie poster, you can immediately envision what the movie, and his character, will look like.
The movie will likely be of the action-adventure variety, with Reynolds as the wise-cracking, sarcastic jackass shredded enough to jump through hoops and punch people in between inappropriate quips. The lane that the blockbuster success of Deadpool carved out for him has been undeniably successful, but it has also cast an air of staid predictability over his career. Reynolds can do “wise-cracking, sarcastic jackass” in his sleep; he can even do it as Pikachu. Given he’s one of Hollywood’s biggest, most likable stars, surely he can do more?
The Adam Project seems like more of the same at first. Reynolds plays Adam Reed, a time-traveling pilot from 2050 searching for his presumed-dead wife Laura (Zoe Saldana) in the past. By accident, he crash-lands in 2022 in the backyard of his 12-year-old self (Walker Scobell). As you might guess, Adam is a wise-cracking, sarcastic jackass whose smart mouth masks his grief over losing his father (Mark Ruffalo). Adult Adam carries similar qualities, except roughly two decades of vaguely-defined good and bad times have given him some perspective on how he improperly handled that loss, particular with his mother Ellie (Jennifer Garner). The two Adams team up to find his wife, travel through time and dismantle a decades-spanning corporate conspiracy to find closure and save the future.
The best thing that The Adam Project does is give Ryan Reynolds more to do than spouting off funny one-liners. He does plenty of that with his trademark exasperated snark, and he has a strong sparring partner in Walker Scobell playing kid Adam. However, those familiar comedic beats bear newer, intriguing shades. Reynolds’ Adam is a darker character than recently seen from him. He carries around decades of loss, resentment, sadness, and anger, along with the knowledge that he can’t change his past even as he walks amongst it. Reynolds renders that damaged inner life with sincerity and intensity, especially in his interactions with Saldana, Garner, and Ruffalo. The vulnerability he conveys in confronting the pain that grounds his sarcastic persona is genuinely touching; the film is at its most memorable in those moments. His scene with Garner, where he offers comfort and advice in dealing with his younger self, is some of his finest acting ever.
Unfortunately, The Adam Project doesn’t quite trust its leading man with the more compelling narrative possibilities. It contains stories that could’ve made for fascinating films in their own right, each toying with the challenging time travel concept to tell stories grounded in the human condition. I would’ve loved to see adult Adam fully grapple with his regrets about his parents or a timeline-breaking adventure romance with him and Laura. (Reynolds and Saldana have the chemistry to convince me that the effort is worth the trouble.) Instead, The Adam Project settles for a convoluted narrative that veers close to being unoriginal. You can feel the disinterest in developing a distinct identity and universe radiating from the script, from turning the lack of time travel logic into several jokes, to the abundance of quips that undercut moments of emotional stakes.
As overstuffed as it can feel, director Shawn Levy does a solid job elevating The Adam Project beyond the empty Netflix diversion it could’ve been. The film pushes at the two-hour mark but doesn’t overstay its welcome. It moves at a reasonable pace, balancing punchy action sequences and sci-fi hijinks with the film’s more compelling emotional beats. Levy, fresh off the massive success of Free Guy, knows his way around both fight scenes and CGI-heavy effects, capturing both with an engagingly kinetic feel. (The worst CGI comes from the digital de-aging of Maya Sorian, played by Catherine Keener, shoving her off the deepest cliff into the uncanny valley of hell.) Even when the snark and banter wear thin and the time travel mechanics slide into ridiculous territory, Levy remarkably holds your attention.
The Adam Project is an unironically good time with surprising emotional potency when it wants to tap into it. Levy understands well how Reynolds works as a screen presence and, despite his post-Deadpool career, that he’s capable of more than just being a handsome quip machine. The script offers mere glimpses, but Reynolds and Levy make the most of them. While not a departure from his comfort zone, The Adam Project feels like a significant evolution (one that hopefully continues when the director and star reunite for Deadpool 3).