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" I guess you used up all the ugly in the family "

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Jeff Goldblum gives the performance of his career in an interesting little movie called Adam Resurrected; Adam is a very different character from the hipster intellectual you’re used to seeing him play. Unfortunately, the ending throws away the complexity that makes the rest of the movie so interesting.

Three Adams

Asylum inmate or doctor?
Asylum inmate or doctor?

Adam Stein’s (Jeff Goldblum) life is told at three points in time. The current timeline finds him at an asylum in the middle of the desert in Israel. It is 1960, and this isn’t the first time he’s been in this asylum. A running gag shows that he knows where all the scotch is secretly hidden. In fact, it’s not immediately obvious whether Adam arrives as an eccentric doctor, an administrator, or as a troubled patient.

The previous timelines show how Adam — a confident, charismatic man — ended up there. The earliest timeline takes place in Germany before the war. Adam and his family are vaudeville entertainers, and they’re at the top of their game. As Jews, their act can’t last, no matter how popular it may be.

The third timeline shows Adam’s tenure in a Nazi concentration camp as the pet of the SS commandant.

Cat’s Cradle or Gordian Knot

Screenwriter Noah Stollman’s story (from a novel by Yoram Kaniuk) ties together the timelines with emotional scars and humiliation. In the camps, Adam keeps reaching new lows, pushed down by a resentful Nazi officer (Willem Dafoe). At the bottom, he ends up as the officer’s pet dog. At the asylum, the most hopeless case is a new inmate who behaves like a dog and can’t be coaxed back to his human self.

Adam Resurrected acknowledges that when a soul is that deeply scarred, the damage is serious and permanent. Something as incomprehensibly evil as the holocaust is not something you can brush off and move past. And yet, Adam Resurrected says that it’s possible to bounce back a little bit. You can endure that and emerge with your humanity intact. You can still be good. You can still be of use, even if you’re not completely whole. Thus it’s understandable if we’re not sure whether Adam is an inmate or a doctor at the asylum.

Humiliation, emotional recovery, and maybe even the nature of humanity are some deep topics. Adam Resurrected tackles them confidently, and for 90 minutes the film intricately tangles the movie’s many metaphors. Unfortunately, director Paul Schrader settles for a simplistic ending. Instead of turning the tangle into a cat’s cradle, he cuts through it like a Gordian knot. He leaves us with a “happy” ending that denies the complexity and pain that went before. For a movie that seemed to deny simple answers, it’s a very disappointing ending.

If you find Adam Resurrected at the top of your Netflix queue, give it a chance. Goldblum’s performance and the first two-thirds of the film are good cinema, and worth a look.