Netflix watchers have been stopped in their tracks by the incredibly unsettling effect.
There are spoilers in this post for The Adam Project.
The Adam Project's villain is supposed to look like a known face, but there's something fundamentally wrong with them—specifically, their face. Ryan Reynolds zaps back to the early twenty-first century in the new time-travel thriller to halt the invention of the technology that will eventually destroy the Earth. The issue isn't with the technology, which his late father invented just before his death. The issue is that it will eventually end up in the hands of his father's cutthroat business partner, Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener). She's a sci-fi overlord in the future, dressed in a black cape that folds over her like a shroud. However, when the story jumps to 2018, we see a younger Maya, a stylish entrepreneur dressed in glistening blouses and an all-business hairstyle. The lax approach to a temporal paradox in the film allows the two Mayas to meet face to face, and the same de-aging technology used in the Marvel Cinematic Universe allows Keener to portray both versions of Maya. However, as someone who grew up watching—and, let's face it, drooling over—performances Keener's in the 1990s, The Adam Project's deepfake feels unsettlingly off.
It's not just that the effects are bad and Keener's dialogue is out of sync with the younger Maya's movements—as many viewers pointed out online the weekend after The Adam Project debuted—or even that the CG-ed version doesn't match the extensive photographic record of what Catherine Keener actually looked like in her thirties. Maya feels like a low-key rebuttal of Keener's distinctive screen self, a blandly prettified, smooth-as-plastic takedown of one of indie film's most iconic figures.
to see an independent American film To be in love with Catherine Keener, or to aspire to be her, was to be 30 years ago. I first saw Keener in 1996's Walking and Talking, the first of five films she made with Nicole Holofcener, a writer-director. When Keener is first introduced, she is sitting alone at a coffee shop, writing in a notebook, when her childhood friend (Anne Heche) walks in. When the server serves Heche's character coffee, Keener clears her throat and says she'd like some, too—her tone implying the long-rehearsed slight of being overshadowed by her more self-assured blonde friend. Despite her appearance as a wallflower, with rumpled hair and a loose-fitting t-shirt hastily tucked into her pants, Keener isn't about to fade into the background: She exudes high intelligence and a ferociously busy mind from the start. Keener shoots him a short thanks-for-noticing look as the waiter reluctantly takes her order, and as his back turns, she sticks out her tongue and pants like a dog. Maybe she's making fun of her own desperation or his obtuseness, or maybe she's just trying to keep her skull from exploding. But it's a true connection with the camera that passes so quickly and unnoticed that you'd miss it if you were looking elsewhere. (You weren't one of them.)
Keener's characters, especially in the films she co-wrote with Holofcener, usually seem to be having a private joke, even if the joke didn't start out that way. She starts the cycle as the epitome of Generation X: overqualified for her low-paying work but too fearful of success to pursue anything more. In the film Lovely & Amazing, Keener's heroine runs into an old high-school classmate and is taken aback when she learns that her childhood acquaintance is now a practicing pediatrician. "We're 36," the companion adds, perplexed, to which Keener responds, "Yeah, but not 36 36." Holofcener finds a career niche in subsequent films, whether it's writing scripts or operating a vintage furniture boutique, but her professional advancement doesn't provide her with any more stability. She's always restless, unclear if the issue is with the world or with herself. Happiness is for the simple-minded, not for those who can constantly predict when the next disaster will strike.
Keener's husky voice and deadpan demeanor may have made her a Hollywood celebrity in another period, the natural-born equivalent of Lauren Bacall as molded by Howard Hawks in The Big Sleep. Keener, on the other hand, had no desire in going down that path, frequently refusing to accept interviews or be the subject of profiles, prompting Entertainment Weekly to pay her the backhanded compliment of admiring her "abnormal beauty." In reality, she's always been attractive, as Holofcener acknowledged in Lovely & Amazing by casting Keener as a past homecoming queen. But her characters didn't appear to notice, too preoccupied with their inner flaws to notice, let alone exploit, their exterior shine. In Walking and Talking, Kevin Corrigan's video store clerk compliments her, "You're incredibly attractive." "You appear to be in need of hearing it."
Being John Malkovich, directed by Spike Jonze and released in 1999, is one of the few times Keener's character appears to be fully in control of her own charisma. When John Cusack's shambling professional puppeteer tries to ask her out on a date in the same dreary office building as Keener, she responds with a shriveling, "If you ever got me, you wouldn't know what to do with me." But it's evident that she's playing this part; she enters it in the same manner as the film's characters briefly enter the body of the titular movie star. The film's outfits, which are mostly black or white with a few monochrome separates, suggest that the director wants viewers to see Keener as an archetypal figure: the unattainable angel or sexual siren. In any case, she's irresistible. Cusack eventually sacrifices his own physical existence in order to keep staring at her.
Keener wasn't merely the thinking person's sex symbol in the 1990s, but she was often referred to as such. She was your wisest friend, your sweetest ex, the one you could count on to tell it like it was, even if you didn't like what you heard. She adhered to her guns even if it meant being alone, which happened a lot, and she never deluded herself into thinking the world had improved just because her position in it had improved. And it feels like the last decade has done her so much damage because of what she meant back then.
Keener, who turned 40 in the year 2000, was still earning plum jobs long into the new millennium; she played Harper Lee in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. But things began to change with 2013's Captain Phillips, a film that not only provided Tom Hanks his best performance but also gave Keener a glorified version of his plain wife, a role so bland and functional that not even she could make it intriguing. Jordan Peele expertly (and cannily) painted her as an affluent liberal whose outward benevolence might swiftly turn ice-cold in 2017's Get Out. (She's so consumed by entitled guilt in Please Give that she offers her restaurant leftovers to a Black man on the street; it turns out he's just waiting for his meal.) However, in 2018's The Incredibles 2, she plays a wealthy tech mogul who is so enraged by superheroes that she is willing to commit mass murder in order to discredit them.
Maya from The Adam Project is an equally jaded spinster. Future Maya, played by 62-year-old Keener, is an imperious monarch with a legion of faceless warriors at her command, but her power hasn't brought her joy. She doesn't even try to hide her scorn for the naive 30-year-old who still believes she can have a profession and a life at the same time as she travels back in time to teach her younger self how to illegally seize control of the corporation. "Can you tell me where you're going?" Younger Maya tries to leave the conversation as Elder Maya teases her. "Are you seeing someone?" You're not one of them. You're too preoccupied. The thing is, you'll always be. This is the only company you'll ever have. It's your private life. "It's your family," says the narrator. (Of course, The Adam Project's male characters aren't presented in the same binary.) Ryan Reynolds' future traveler remembers his scientist father as a distant father, but he's proven incorrect: the old man may have worked too hard, but he always found time for a game of catch.)
Maya isn't anything like Catherine Keener when she was younger, but more importantly, she doesn't feel like her. Nothing distinguishes her from the swarm of identically dressed tech whizzes that one of her '90s characters would have mocked at as they rushed past the coffee shop on their way to work (or worse, the gym). Every stray thought, every melancholic half-smile has been blasted away by a program designed to create the illusion of life, and the epitome of Gen X ambivalence has become a smoothly tooled success robot. She isn't a unique beauty; rather, she is a typical one. And, as it turns out, a digitally enhanced Catherine Keener isn't the same as the real thing.