This post contains spoilers for The Adam Project,
The villain in Netflix’s The Adam Project is meant to seem like a familiar face, but there’s something fundamentally wrong with them—their face, specifically. In the new time-travel thriller, Ryan Reynolds zaps back to the early 21st century to stop the invention of the technology that will eventually ruin the world. The problem isn’t the tech itself, which was invented by his late father shortly before his death. The problem is the unscrupulous hands it will eventually fall into—the hands of his dad’s ruthless business partner, Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener). In the future, she’s a sci-fi overlord, swathed in a black cape that drapes over her like a shroud. But when the plot rewinds to 2018, we get a look at a younger Maya, a sleek entrepreneur in shimmering blouses and an all-business ponytail. The movie’s loosey-goosey approach to temporal paradox allows the two Mayas to meet face to face, and the same de-aging technology deployed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe allows both versions of Maya to be played by Keener himself. But having grown up watching—and, let’s be honest, swooning over—Keener’s performances in the 1990s, The Adam Project‘s deepfake feels unnervingly off,
It’s not just, as plenty of viewers noted online the weekend after The Adam Project‘s debut, that the effects are lousy and Keener’s dialogue is out of sync with the younger Maya’s movements—or even that the CG-ed version doesn’t match the ample photographic record of what Catherine Keener actually looked like in her thirties. The blandly prettified, smooth-as-plastic Maya feels like a rebuke of Keener’s idiosyncratic screen self, a low-key desecration of one of indie film’s most important icons.
To watch American independent cinema 30 years ago was to be in love with Catherine Keener, or to want to be her. I first remember encountering Keener in 1996’s Walking and Talking, the first of five movies she made with the writer-director Nicole Holofcener. When she’s introduced, Keener’s sitting alone in a coffee shop, writing in a notebook, when her childhood friend (Anne Heche) bounces in to join her. Heche’s character has barely taken a seat when the waiter offers her some coffee, which prompts Keener to clear her throat and add that she’d like some, too—her tone suggesting the long-rehearsed slight of being overshadowed by her more self-assured blonde companion. But though she’s introduced as a wallflower, with rumpled hair and a loose-fitting t-shirt haphazardly tucked into her jeans, there’s no risk of Keener fading into the woodwork: From that first moment, she radiates keen intelligence and a ferociously active mind. As the waiter grudgingly takes her order, Keener shoots him a quick thanks-for-noticing smile, and as his back turns, she sticks out her tongue and pants like a dog. Maybe she’s mocking her own desperation or his obtuseness, or maybe she’s just firing off excess neural energy so her head doesn’t explode. But it’s a moment of pure communion with the camera, passing so quickly and unremarked-upon that you’d miss it if you were looking anywhere else. (You weren’t.)
Keener wasn’t just the thinking person’s sex symbol. She was your smartest friend, your most kind-hearted ex, the person you could trust to tell it to you straight, even if you might not like what you heard.
Especially in the movies she made with Holofcener, Keener’s characters always seem like they’re enjoying a private joke, even if the joke didn’t start out that way. She begins the cycle as the personification of Generation X: overqualified for her menial job, yet too suspicious of success to push for anything better. In Lovely & Amazing, Keener’s character bumps into an old high-school classmate and shock that her childhood friend is already a practicing pediatrician. The friend, nonplussed, says, “We’re 36,” and Keener responds, “Yeah, but not 36 36.” In Holofcener’s later movies, she finds a career niche, whether it’s writing screenplays or running a vintage furniture boutique, but the professional progression doesn’t give her any firmer sense of security. She’s always adrift, restless, unsure if the problem is the world or herself. Happiness is for the simple-minded, not someone who can always anticipate the next crisis coming around the corner.
In a different era, Keener’s husky voice and deadpan demeanor might have made her a Hollywood star, the natural-born version of what Howard Hawks molded Lauren Bacall into in The Big Sleep, But Keener had no interest in going that route, often refusing to do interviews or be the subject of profiles, leaving Entertainment Weekly to pay her the backhanded compliment of praising her “unusual beauty.” In fact, she’s always been beautiful, which Holofcener acknowledged in Lovely & Amazing by making Keener’s struggling amateur artist a former homecoming queen. But her characters rarely seemed alone to take that to heart, too consumed with their inner failings to take stock of, let exploit, their outer radiance. “You’re really pretty,” Kevin Corrigan’s video store clerk tells her in Walking and Talking, “You look like you need to hear it.”
Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, from 1999, is the rare occasion where Keener’s character seems in full command of her own magnetism. When John Cusack’s shambling professional puppeteer, who works in the same drab office building as Keener, makes a stammering try at asking her out on a date, she fires back a shriveling, “If you ever got me, you wouldn’t know what to do with me.” But it’s clear that this is a role that she’s playing; she steps into it the way the film’s characters briefly insert themselves into the body of the titular movie star. Keener’s costumes here—usually all black or white with occasional monochrome separates—suggest that the film wants us to see her archetypically: the unattainable angel or sexual siren. But either way, she’s irresistible. In the end, Cusack gives up his own corporeal existence just for a chance to keep looking at her.
In the 1990s, Keener wasn’t just the thinking person’s sex symbol, although she was called that often enough. She was your smartest friend, your most kind-hearted ex, the person you could trust to tell it to you straight, even if you might not like what you heard. She stuck to her guns even when, as it often did, it meant ending up alone, and she never fooled herself into thinking the world had gotten better just because her place in it improved. And it’s because of what she meant back then that it feels like the last decade’s done her so dirty.
Keener, who turned 40 in the year 2000, was still getting plum parts well into the new millennium; she was the woman Steve Carrell gets his shit together for in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and was nominated for an Oscar as capote‘s Harper Lee. But things started to turn with 2013’s Captain Phillips, a movie which fostered the best performance of Tom Hanks’ career but gave Keener a glorified his nondescript wife, a role so generic and functional, not even she could make it interesting. In 2017’s Get Out, Jordan Peele cast her perfectly (and cannily) as a wealthy liberal whose outward benevolence could quickly turn ice-cold. (In Please Give, she’s so riddled with privileged guilt that she offers her restaurant leftovers to a Black man on the street; it turns out he’s just waiting for his table.) But a sourness set in with 2018’s The Incredibles 2in which she voices a wealthy tech mogul so consumed with resentment toward superheroes, she’s willing to commit mass murder to discredit them.
The Adam Project‘s Maya is a similarly embittered spinster. Future Maya, played by the normal-looking 62-year-old Keener, is an imperious ruler with a legion of anonymous warriors at her command, but her domination hasn’t brought her happiness. When she zips back to the past to instruct her younger self on how to illegally seize control of the company, she doesn’t even bother to conceal her contempt for the naïve 30 year old who still thinks she can have a career and a life at the same time. “Where are you going?” Elder Maya taunts, as Younger Maya tries to exit their conversation. “Seeing someone? No, you’re not. You’re too busy. Thing is, you will always be. This company is all you will ever have. It is your personal life. It’s your family.” (Needless to say, The Adam Project doesn’t present its male characters with the same binary. Ryan Reynolds’ future traveler remembers his scientist dad as an absent father, but he’s proven wrong: The old man may have worked too hard, but he always had time for a game of catch.)
The deepfaked Maya doesn’t look like anything the young Catherine Keener, but more importantly, she doesn’t feel like her. There’s no crackle of thought behind her eyes, nothing to set her apart from the horde of identically attired tech whizzes one of her ’90s characters would have scoffed at as they sped past the coffee shop on their way to work (or worse, the gym) ). The embodiment of Gen X ambivalence has become a smoothly tooled success robot, every errant thought, every melancholy half-smile blasted away by a program designed to produce an illusion of life. She’s not an unusual beauty, just a usual one. And as it turns out, a digitally perfected Catherine Keener is no Catherine Keener at all.