Somewhere along the line, Ryan Reynolds became the most playful actor we have. That might sound like faint praise; some would call him silly or lightweight or even, in his aggro irreverance, a touch smarmy. But genuine fast-break insolence is a quality that’s missing from the lumbering cheek of most of our paint-by-numbers blockbusters. Reynolds has a knack for playing characters who are nonchalantly macho but with an amusing touch of cowardice, a contradiction he invests with a kind of innocence. He’s got a Nervous Nellie side that humanizes him, especially when it takes the form of a nerd’s verbal machine-gun fire. In his way, he’s a new screen type: the goof in a pinup’s body.
Last summer, in the diabolically clever video-game head trip “Free Guy,” Reynolds finally got to be in a movie where the jittery digital-age fantasy elements skittered by every bit as quickly as his rapid-patter mind. The film was as jammed with media as Spielberg’s “Ready Player One,” but more relaxed about its own insanity, and that seemed to liberate Reynolds; it was the most accomplished work he’d done since “Deadpool.” The director Shawn Levy, who made the “Night at the Museum” films, also hit a new peak — of life-is-a-screen-and-we-just-live-in-it imaginative verve. “Free Guy” was the rare sleeper hit of the pandemic era, and Reynolds and Levy emerged from it as a kind of team. These two click rhythmically and chemically. They bring something out in each other.
“The Adam Project” is their follow-up collaboration (both are executive producers of it), but it’s the Netflix version: a notch more anonymous, packed with fantasy and action as if it were being financed by the yard. At its best, though, you feel the exuberance of the Reynolds/Levy connection. The movie is a total trifle, but it’s often a diverting one — a wide-eyed sci-fi adventure with a screwball buoyancy.
Reynolds, in a beard that makes him look like a smirky G.I. Joe, plays Adam Reed, a time-tripping renegade fighter pilot from the year 2050 who travels back to 2022, where he hooks up with his 12-year-old self: a small-for-his-age blond kid, played by the terrific Walker Scobell, who makes up for his stature — and for just about everything else — with the size of his brain and the sharpness of his mouth. He’s a sweet kid, yet so cuttingly observant that he can talk himself into getting punched by the school bully. Adam razzes his mother, Ellie (Jennifer Garner), and since they’re both still coping with the death of his father in a car accident a year-and-a-half before, she experiences the effrontery as an attack.
Adam, in cynical movie terms, needs a buddy who can be a father figure. And what buddy could be more ideal for him than his own self, 30 years later? Reynolds’ Adam, who drops into a woods lit with ’70s Spielbergian blue light and skulks around bleeding from a bullet wound, talks as much smack as 12-year-old Adam does. He’s just what the kid need and deserves. But there are, in addition, a whole lotta back-to-the-future logistical backflips going on. The premise of “The Adam Project” is that time travel exists, and that adult Adam has traveled back to the wrong year — he really wanted to land in 2018, so that he could stop Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener), his diabolical flight commander, from returning to that same year and causing all kinds of dastardly things to happen, starting with the death of Adam’s wife, Laura (Zoe Saldaña).
“The Adam Project” is the kind of time-travel movie that spins your head until it turns your head to mush. It’s the sort of movie in which Catherine Keener, facing off against her de-aged self, warns of “the potential for catastrophic changes to the time stream,” and all you can think is: I liked time better before it became the time stream. These films bend over backwards to chase the tail of their own “logic” (if you go back in time and meet your younger self, how will that mess with the cosmos? And if, in fact, you change anything, how will that mess with the cosmos?), but the questions are inevitably more incisive than the answers. Because the simple eternal truth is that the more you think about time travel, the way this movie asks you to, the less sense it makes.
But “The Adam Project” isn’t heavy-duty sci-fi. It’s a glossy bauble of a caper that uses time travel as a frame for action that’s as staged as effusively as the demolition in a Road Runner cartoon. For a few scenes, the movie is “Top Gun” in the northwest. Then it’s a “Star Wars” ninja video game with adult Adam using a double-sided industrial light saber to fend off an army of metal droids that he reduces, with each saber slash, to orange-pink psychedelic powder. And once the characters return to the pivotal year of 2018, it becomes an absent-daddy bonding movie (more Spielberg!) with Adam’s late physicist father, played as a scruffy volatile professor by Mark Ruffalo, alive and well, which he needs to be because he’s the scientist who invented time travel. To save the future, Adam wants to eliminate that miraculous ability from the earth. But if he does, how will he meet Saldaña’s perky Laura?
The action scenes are choreographed to classic rock — “Gimme Some Lovin’,” “Foreplay/Long Time” by Boston, Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times.” The real time travel in this movie is back to the days when even action was a form of feel-good entertainment. “The Adam Project” is the definition of trivial, and on the small screen it overstays its welcome by about 15 minutes, but it’s a brashly likable piece of antic high-powered fluff. Here’s my own leap into the future: As a team, Ryan Reynolds and Shawn Levy are going to make much better movies than this, but you can feel the tastiness of their combo even in a kinetic marshmallow like “The Adam Project.” They’re not trying to fake fun.
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