There’s an amusing parallel to be found between the star and the subject matter of Adam at Six A.M., a well-made post-Graduate character study about a young intellectual who rebels against the psychological constraints of middle-class society. Like the protagonist, leading man Michael Douglas, the eldest child of Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas, gained career access because of his father’s accomplishments. Unlike the protagonist, however, Michael Douglas dove headlong into the family business. The story begins with Adam Gaines (Douglas) completing a school year as an assistant professor of semantics at a West Coast university. At first glance, he seems to possess all the trappings of success—a snazzy car, a steady job, and a sultry girlfriend, Joyce (Meg Foster). Yet when Adam receives word that a relative has died in Missouri, he impulsively ditches his comfortable situation for a road trip, curious to experience the textures of a simpler lifestyle. Immediately upon arriving in small-town America, Adam meets recent high-school graduate Jerri Jo Hopper (Lee Purcell), a pretty and sweet girl who is dazzled by Adam’s big-city bona fides. Then Adam takes a job on a road crew alongside amiable hick Harvey Garvin (Joe Don Baker), marking an abrupt shift from cerebral endeavors to physical labor.
Once all the pieces of the story are in place, screenwriters Elinor and Steven Karpf reveal that Adam has traded one social trap for another, so narrative tension emanates from the question of whether Adam can find a niche for himself in the Midwest. The Karpfs’ script is generally quite strong, with sensitive characterizations and thoughtful dialogue—as well as a few artfully constructed visual metaphors—and the movie as a whole walks a fine line between objectively depicting and snidely satirizing the people who fill America’s heartland. (For instance, the central love story works because Jerri Jo is shown to be more complex and savvy than a mere girl-next-door caricature.) There’s no question that the filmmakers’ sympathies lie with Adam—who represents the existential malaise of late ’60s/early ’70s youth culture—but Adam at Six A.M. plays fair because the hurtful consequences of the lead character’s I-gotta-be-me decisions are clearly dramatized. And if the film’s final images hit with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, everyone involved in the picture gets points for trying to say something meaningful in a literary way.
In terms of technical execution, Robert Scheerer’s smooth direction keeps scenes brisk and purposeful, and the acting is solid. Douglas underplays effectively, accentuating his character’s amusement at provincial attitudes without coming across as smug, and Purcell illustrates the iron will hidden behind her character’s unassuming demeanor. Baker lays on his signature good-ole-boy charm, contributing humor and menace in equal measure, and indestructible character actor Dana Elcar delivers a vivid turn in a small but crucial part as a judgmental townie.
Adam at Six A.M.: GROOVY