Looking for Mr. Adorkable

9 minute read
Joel Stein/Los Angeles

If Adam Brody had been around 20 years ago, I would have done a lot better with girls. Here’s a guy doing the same nerdy, sarcastic, obscure-reference-laced Jewy thing, only instead of it just impressing friends’ moms, as mine did, it puts him in PEOPLE magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive issue and makes him the first boy ever on the cover of Elle Girl. What James Dean did for inarticulate antisocial depressives, Brody has done for dorks.

He even broke the cardinal rule of teen soaps; he hijacked school-locker-heartthrob status from the troubled, handsome blond lead character on Fox’s The O.C. I couldn’t figure out how, until I met Brody. He’s not really a nerd. He’s tall. He’s good-looking. He surfs. He’s a drummer in a band. He’s got passable scruff. He’s from San Diego. He dropped out after a year of community college to move to Los Angeles to try acting for the first time in his life because, you know, he really liked movies.

“I’m a fake intellectual,” he says while wearing giant sunglasses and eating his first meal of the day–a cheeseburger–at 1 p.m. “I’m not that well read. Which I’m insecure about since I’ve gotten the [intellectual] niche.” He’s not even sure how he pulled off the fake-nerd scam. “Maybe the sarcasm reads a little bit as intellect, even if it’s not,” he says. “My best jokes are so cheap. All I do is say things sarcastically. I just say, ‘Yeah. Cool.'” As he says this, I feel the confusing disappointment that I imagine young women painters feel when they find out Joan Miró is a man.

So he’s not really a nerd, whatever, guy’s my hero. He played one on The O.C. and redefined the type. As Seth Cohen, he was into comic books and erudite references and pushing Chrismukkah onto the national calendar, but he owned it. None of that David Schwimmer cautiousness, that Tom Hanks self-mockery, that Rainn Wilson hipster alternative cluelessness–not even the John Cusack exasperation at the idiots running everything. Brody’s nerdiness was unapologetic, So Cal slow and so self-assured, the network let his character have a hot girlfriend. His new archetype was successful enough that two years into the show, he started seeing scripts for pilots describing characters as “an Adam Brody type.”

And now, at 27, after playing a teenager for four years, Brody plays the leading-man version of that guy in the $10 million picture In the Land of Women, which opens April 20. As a pouty, heartsick soft-porn screenwriter who moves to Michigan to take care of his grandmother, Brody winds up making out with both the hot mom across the street (Meg Ryan) and her teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart). And somehow he does something that creepy while still seeming like a really nice guy. The same innocent charm made him an US magazine fixture as The O.C’s breakout star: the sarcastic but decent one. “Adam is the funniest guy you still want to see get the girl,” says O.C. creator Josh Schwartz, 30, who patterned Brody’s character after himself. “He’s able to attract neurotic Jewish writers to write for him, but he’s definitely cooler in real life than the characters he’s provided. He can be really sweet and adorkable, but there’s some anger there. He was able to give the character some dignity. Seth Cohen was a guy who had no friends, but it was almost as much his choice as the Newport Beach water-polo players’.” In other words, he’s the first nerd to tell the cool kids that giving noogies is lame.

Brody does, in fact, have a kind of geeky weirdness, a slight awkwardness on top of his mellow self-deprecating charm that Schwartz says manifests itself, for instance, when he transforms, as he does often, into a “monologuist movie reviewer.” Or you can see it in his thwarted dream to produce a remake of Revenge of the Nerds. Or, as the neurotic Jewish first-time writer-director of In the Land of Women, Jon Kasdan (son of Big Chill director Lawrence Kasdan), says, “He’s a new kind of nerdy Jewish guy: both self-deprecating and self-possessed. He’s taken the New York thing and moved it over to the West Coast–not a bad role to carve out for yourself.”

Plus, as Brody points out, his nerdiness didn’t hold him back because even nerdiness isn’t so nerdy anymore. “Comic books aren’t nerdy. You’d have to be an idiot to think computers are nerdy. The nerd now is the Bush Administration–supporting, anti-intellectual dumb ass.” Whether that’s true or not, it’s clear the once desirable macho-jock type hasn’t got such pull. There’s a reason the Rock and Vin Diesel haven’t filled the gap left by Schwarzenegger and Stallone: nobody minds the gap. And in a world without heroes, as the movie trailer voice-over guy might say, the slightly awkward can be slightly cool.

Though he embraces the lovable-loser persona, Brody realizes he escaped a life of typecasting when The O.C. took an unpredicted sharp downward ratings turn two years ago. “We were very fortunate that we got to be on a hit show and not be on it for 10 years. I can’t imagine Year 7 being the glory year of a teen soap,” he says. He thinks the show’s demise was due to stories that moved too quickly (“On other shows, they don’t let people kiss for years”) and an overreliance on the clever, self-knowing jokes the show was loved for but that came to serve as cover for absurd story lines or clichéd characters. Although he’s glad it ended, he still considers The O.C. his college, and had lunch the day before with co-star Benjamin McKenzie (who played the aforementioned blond lead). Even the breakup of his much chronicled, sickeningly cute romance with co-star Rachel Bilson (they share custody of two dogs: Penny Lane and Thurmen Murmen) was a good experience. “I wouldn’t date someone who would turn into a psycho,” he says. Again, there’s the lovable naiveté.

Given, then, the unexpected opportunity to redefine himself when The O.C. went off the air in February, Brody has been carefully waiting for good scripts with a character close enough to himself to be believable and not, at 27, another teenager. Instead of taking the big parts in horror movies or teen comedies that TV stars are always offered, he took small roles in Thank You for Smoking and Mr. & Mrs. Smith and then the lead in In the Land of Women. He wants to prove himself movieworthy, within limits. “I’m not going to rob banks and smoke crack to prove how not-television I am,” he says. He’s just going to smoke cigarettes, write soft porn and make out with moms and their daughters. Baby steps.

Still, Warner Bros. is confident enough about Brody’s image as a teen heartthrob that it is tricking people with trailers and posters that make a movie that’s actually about an adulterous flirtation with a cancer-plagued Ryan look instead like a love story between him and Stewart, an actress who was 15 when it was filmed. “I don’t know if it’s going to work,” Brody admits. “I have my doubts.”

And while he waits to find out where the film–and small roles in two indie films coming out later this year, The Ten and Smiley Face–will place him in the film-actor hierarchy, he’s getting anxious. He’s worried about the fact that he hasn’t worked since The O.C. wrapped. (Women was filmed in 2005.) “I feel like I haven’t really tried hard in two years. I don’t even know what I’m capable of,” he says. Meanwhile, he’s hanging out with his friends, writing songs and screenplays, seeing nearly every movie that comes out and avoiding malls and other places swoon-prone teenage girls hang out, since he finds being swarmed with cell-phone cameras incredibly embarrassing. These are things Urkel did not have to worry about.

And even though–in a moment of pretentiousness that he precedes with two minutes of apology–he says he has started to consider himself an artist, he seems like a pretty commercial one. Most of his movie ideas are action films, and his band plays the kind of pleasant, fake-disaffected pop that might appear on an episode of The O.C. “I wish I came from a more pure place,” he says. “I don’t have something to say from the bottom of my soul. I just know how to take stuff I like and repackage it in a slightly different way.” In fact, he says when he has to hit a joke in a script, he decides whether to deliver it like Matthew Perry, Ben Stiller or Will Ferrell. “There were two years before The O.C. when I was doing a Vince Vaughn impersonation in everything I did. Luckily, I wasn’t good enough that anyone caught me at it.”

But however he’s done it, he has made an impression, created that “Adam Brody type.” And what he really wants to do is to take that type and put him in an action movie–something, he says, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Marathon Man. Or like the lead in the Wachowski brothers’ Speed Racer, which he lost to Emile Hirsch. Or, and this is when his nerdiness does finally, yes, reveal itself, the kind of action comedies that Harrison Ford did. “Like when he’s talking to Princess Leia–that Han Solo attitude!” he says. “Like ‘Listen, sister: Stop bitching!'” I’m a little afraid he’s going to wave a fake light saber at me. And, worse yet, that I’m going to wave one back.

But then I realize that quoting Star Wars hasn’t been uncool for at least a decade. That the semiotics of dorkdom have become wonderfully unclear, and that the teenage social world might be a tiny bit less stratified than it used to be. That things are so mixed up, a cool guy can become a matinee idol by pretending to be a nerd. And if Adam Brody helped make that change, by appearing in the same media that cover Paris and Britney and Lindsay, then I hope he does become an action hero. That’s got to help me somehow.

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