To say The Adam Project changed my life might be a stretch, but hyperbole is the cynic’s friend. The time travel film did make me confront portions of my identity, have some interesting conversations around the state of the Church, and enjoy the (time jet) ride.
The Acerbic Project
The year is 2050 and Adam Reed (Ryan Reynolds) is hell-bent on traveling back to 2018 to undo some mysterious wrongs involving his wife Laura (Zoe Saldana). Unfortunately, he ends up in 2022, where he meets his twelve-year-old self (Walker Scobell). The film asks standard time travel movie questions (with some interesting answers), but it stands out for its differences. The Adam Project spends very little time in the future, proposes a fixed time theory, and utilizes some never-before-seen technology (both filmmaking and in-story).
But the biggest difference for me was the amount of sarcasm and its function. Sure, sarcasm exists in other time travel films: recall Back to the Future, when Principal Strickland warns Marty McFly to avoid Doc Brown, and Marty responds, “Oh, yes sir.” Or consider Donnie Darko, when Frank brashly demands, “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?” But the sheer volume of Ryan Reynolds’ sarcasm is a tidal wave overpowering all other similar films.
Sarcasm may be funny, but we must ask if the movie stands on its own merit, both as a story and as a time travel film, aside from the cynicism. I believe the answer is yes. It’s a fun, (mostly) family-friendly adventure. Reynolds’ sarcasm doesn’t distract from or hinder the story, but rather enhances it.
Unquestionably Evil: Sarcasm’s Nuance
Believing sarcasm can enhance anything may seem like an oxymoron to some. Those raised in conservative Christian homes may have been taught (or it was implied) that sarcasm was a sin. And there is no doubt, sarcasm can be mean. From the moment older Adam meets younger Adam, the elder doesn’t hide his disdain for his scrawny self.
The sarcasm, even when mean, enhances our understanding that older Adam is a more cynical version of himself because of multiple traumatic events. The only times Adam intends to be mean is when he genuinely wants to hurt someone who has hurt him. It’s not right, but the character’s heart behind the sarcasm matches what we’d expect.
But there are times in the film where sarcasm is meant to reveal something true or make the characters and audience laugh. Adam’s wife Laura finds the Adams and explains her investigation on the mysteries surrounding her disappearance. Younger Adam quickly hypothesizes that the villain went back and altered the time stream. Responding to older Adam’s confused look, younger Adam says, “It’s like I traded my brains for those muscles. It’s a $h!* deal.” Laura smirks, “Cute kid,” to which older Adam grimaces, “Precious, isn’t he? Don’t you just wanna hold him underwater till the bubbles stop?” Every word from all three actors is biting, but not one bit is meant to be taken seriously.
So while there is nuance, we still may want to throw the sarcastic baby out with the bathwater. Is the Church guilty of a one-dimensional, sarcasm-is-always-evil approach, or is this just my bias? If we look up verses on sarcasm many lists presuppose it’s a sin, citing examples like Matthew 5:37 (“let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’”) and Ephesians 5:4 (“no foolish talk or coarse joking”). Adding to this, many pastors slam sarcasm from the pulpit. I submitted this article to my writer’s critique group and the first comment was: “One of my pastors recently said that the core of sarcasm is anger.”
It appears the misclassification is widespread. If The Adam Project highlights real life and sarcasm actually has nuance, should we be so quick to judge?
Forgive Me, Father, for I Have Sarcasmed
I’ve always been told sarcasm is a sin, and yet it’s part of my personality. I’ve wrestled for a long time on whether I should exorcize or exercise the demon. My wife and I are part of a small group from our church (ten people we don’t know very well), including the lead pastor. A few weeks ago, we were supposed to discuss our identities in Jesus and I kept thinking about how The Adam Project mirrored my own natural sarcasm. I bit my lip (and the proverbial bullet) and poured out a mostly unintelligible question on what the group thought about how someone like me could be created with a sarcastic personality but had been guilted into shame for my horrendous character flaw.
What transpired was the rawest, most transparent thirty minute conversation I’ve ever had about sarcasm amongst Christians. Three others (including the pastor) admitted to being sarcastic and being unfairly criticized for it by the Church. One lady confessed we were the third Bible study she attended (from as many churches) because she was judged and looked down upon for her humor and personality. She finally felt comfortable being herself in our group.
It wasn’t all kumbaya (sarcastic people rarely have feel-good-fests): we discussed verses like these and especially Jesus’s sarcastic statements (without time for all of Paul’s saintly sarcasm). Afterwards, we four sarcastic Christians (that’s forty percent of the group!) said the discussion was meaningful, but agreed there was a difference between respectable and mean sarcasm. In real life, just as in the film, we should ask what is the heart behind the sarcasm? We must consider two things: the intent and the reception.
Adamantly Helping or Hurting
Most of us won’t have the chance to time travel to instruct our younger selves, so how should cynics and listeners handle sarcasm? As the movie wraps up, the Adams are playing catch and older Adam has had time to dwell on how bitterness and grief had driven much of his sarcasm’s intentionality toward inflicting pain. He tells younger Adam to give their Mom a “real” hug (implying he should be loving). Younger Adam still speaks to his Mom sarcastically, but he follows through on being caring.
We sarcastic people should be mindful about our intent. Is there a root of bitterness, anger, or passive-aggressiveness that, if we’re honest, is meant to hurt or teach a lesson? We must reign that in. But if our heart is to use sarcasm to lighten the mood or be boldly truthful or have (the spiritual gift of) discernment, ask God to help that flourish. And feelings may be unintentionally hurt, so apologize immediately and go easy on that person in the future (certainly no time travel pun intended).
The main recipients of Adam’s sarcasm (Mom, Dad, and Laura) had to judge his intent honestly. Instead of getting angry at his anger, or hurt at his hurt, they also had to decide if they should laugh at his humor. When we receive sarcasm, try and give the benefit of the doubt. The person may be struggling with grief or could be attempting humor. But if all signs point toward them being mean, it’s okay to have hurt feelings or not want to hang out with them; just try and take as much time considering their intent as you hope they’d give to thinking before they speak.
Withering Sarcasm: Hope and Irony
The sarcasm of The Adam Project enhanced the film in much the same way it can enhance our lives. This mindset runs counter to cultural Christianity’s teaching where everyone submits to pleasant personality veneers and approved joking styles. But if we’re to realistically deal with our grief, come alongside others during difficult times, and bring a different brand of hopeful humor, sarcasm can be the answer.
Just as elder Adam taught himself, we cynics must be mindful with our intent, without giving up our sarcastic identities. Ironically, there is hope (and an important role) for us smart alecks after all, in bold truth-telling, wise discernment, and intelligent humor.