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‘Young Adam’ isn't as edgy as it wants to be

Ewan McGregor stars as promiscuous drifter who gets caught up in a mystery. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ewan McGregor drops trou once again for his art in “Young Adam” — and God love him for it!

After “Trainspotting,” “The Pillow Book” and “Velvet Goldmine,” it almost wouldn’t be a Ewan McGregor movie if he didn’t expose himself. (Maybe he should have tried it as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the CGI-laden “Star Wars” prequels — they could have used a bit of humanity.)

Here, as a promiscuous drifter working on a barge in 1950s Scotland, McGregor barely ever has his pants on. He’s so busy having sex with everyone he meets — his boss’ wife, a woman on the beach, a recent widow — it’s a wonder he gets any work done at all. And when he’s not having sex, he’s chain-smoking one of his many hand-rolled cigarettes.

Writer-director David Mackenzie’s film, based on a novel by Alexander Trocchi, is more interesting when it’s about the simple rhythms on the boat, which are interrupted in the beginning by the discovery of a woman’s body floating in the water.

McGregor’s character, a failed writer named Joe, works on deck with the craggy, good-natured Les (Peter Mullan) while his affair with Joe’s wife, Ella (a bold, frequently nude Tilda Swinton), steadily intensifies and becomes more reckless down below.

Joe’s trysts with other women in town don’t reveal more about him. Who is this guy? Where did he come from? And why is he like this?

(And while we’re asking questions, who is the Adam of the title? There’s no one named Adam in the movie — we can only assume the name is a biblical metaphor, but who knows?)

Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography, which makes the cold, bleak winter look eerily beautiful, adds to the film’s mood, as does David Byrne’s brooding score.

But when it’s revealed that one of Joe’s ex-girlfriends, Cathie (Emily Mortimer), is the woman whose drowned body turned up in the start of the film, “Young Adam” begins to feel standard.

From there, it turns into a courtroom drama, with Joe and Cathie’s romance playing out in flashbacks while another of her boyfriends is on trial for her death. Any filmmaker can create that, but it takes guts and skill to make a slow, subtle film in which seemingly very little happens, despite the undercurrents rushing beneath the surface.

The memory of especially graphic sex between Joe and Cathie — in which he pours all the condiments on her that were left in the refrigerator from “9½ Weeks,” then leaves her sobbing and writhing on the hardwood floor of their meager apartment — further reveals that “Young Adam” isn’t nearly as original as it initially seemed.

The scene is probably intended to be shocking or edgy; it’s actually quite banal.

McGregor is always fascinating to watch, though. There’s something predatory about him here — despite his boyish good looks — and the hard winter light makes his fair, freckled features look almost demonic.

Sometimes he’s flirty with the women he meets, sometimes he outright leers at them. But he always ends up getting what he wants in the end, something audiences watching “Young Adam” probably won’t get.