March 11, 2022 9:53 AM EST

Some movies don’t have enough plot or excitement; others try to pack in so much that it’s a scramble just trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s hard to know exactly where The Adam Project, a futuristic fantasy and coming-of-age adventure-comedy starring Ryan Reynolds, falls. Is it way too much or not nearly enough? And where should we lay the blame for its flaws? (Jonathan Tropper, T.S. Nowlin, and Jennifer Flackett wrote the script; the director is Shawn Levy, the filmmaker behind the Night at the Museum movies and, more recently, the entertaining, if a bit manic, Free Guy, also starring Reynolds.) In places, The Adam Project drags interminably. But mostly it tries to do too many things at once, asserting that being a nerd can pay off, that time travel may not be all it’s cracked up to be, that dads should play ball with their sons, and that sons should be kind to their mothers—and that’s just a partial list. A movie with so many octopus ambitions is unlikely to pull off any of them, and that’s the bind The Adam Project finds itself in.

Reynolds plays Adam, a time-traveling fighter pilot from 2050 who crash-lands in the present day. His motives aren’t clear at first, and they become even murkier as the movie progresses. Apparently, he was really trying to go back a little further in time—to 2018—to change events that led to the death of his wife, Laura (Zoe Saldana). But later, his goal shifts toward changing the course of time travel at its very inception. (Or something.) Because as we come to learn, the rich, amoral corporate overlord Maya Sorian (played by Catherine Keener) has hijacked time-travel technology for her own nefarious purposes. It also turns out that Adam’s father (Mark Ruffalo) practically invented time travel. But then he died, leaving behind a widow (Jennifer Garner) and, of course, young Adam (played by Walker Scobell), a bright but unruly kid who keeps getting beaten up by the bullies at school.

Read more reviews by Stephanie Zacharek

Confused yet? Watching The Adam Project won’t help: minute by minute it wades deeper into its morass of excess. Then the special-effects kick in, including your usual time-travel zapping from here to there, as well as a phalanx of black-clad baddies who materialize out of nowhere. There are also two versions of Catherine Keener, one younger, in a CGI-buffed way, and one older—crazy! Garner, who plays the most sympathetic character in the whole film, disappears for long stretches. Whenever she re-emerges, The Adam Project breathes a little.

It’s a shame, because the film’s early moments—when young Adam first meets the older version of himself—show some promise. Reynolds has fantastic comic timing, and tends to play characters who are both insecure and have an inflated sense of their own importance in the world. His mildly pompous vibe is a plus, not a minus. He’s wonderful at playing characters who are just annoying enough—Reynolds will creep as close as he can to that line, pushing his luck every time. Just when you want to smack him, you’re likely to end up laughing instead. Scobell, as the young Adam, does a great job of matching Reynolds’ tics and mannerisms; it’s fun to watch these two together, the older Adam recognizing how terrifically annoying he was as a 12-year-old, even as the younger Adam—awkward and nerdy and angry at the world—marvels at the mere notion that he could grow up to be a time-traveling fighter pilot with a beautiful wife (and muscles to boot). But these two performers are undone by all the clutter around them. The Adam Project should be fun, but it’s sabotaged by its unwieldy ambitions. Forget the complexities of time travel, of wormholes and the laws of physics. This movie can barely get from point A to point B without tripping over itself.

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