Chemistry, romance propel sometimes-spotty “The Adjustment Bureau”

Damon and Blunt try to outfox the world's snazziest event planners in "The Adjustment Bureau."

“Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.” ~~Toni Morrison, “Beloved”

Brooklyn-born Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon), with his Budweiser-fed frat boy looks, may or may not have read much Toni Morrison. At some point in his life, though, he undoubtedly latched on to the idea that true love, whenever and wherever it appears, is worth fighting like hell to keep. Because for all its ramblings on fate and destiny and free will, “The Adjustment Bureau” is at its center a poignant, exhilarating love story — poignant because it is deeply human, and exhilarating because it suggests that love, when it’s real, can be a gamechanger.

The fight to hold on to love, combined with Matt Damon and Emily Blunt’s fantastic chemistry, would be enough to make “The Adjustment Bureau” a worthwhile romantic dramedy. But since the film is inspired by Philip K. Dick’s story “Adjustment Team,” director George Nolfi adds in touches of sci-fi and fast-and-loose theology, with nods to “The Matrix” sprinkled in for good measure. That’s one way to make this romance stand apart from the crowd. Whether or not the sci-fi and theology and romance mesh depends on how willing viewers are to squelch their their questions because — consider this a fair warning — once the Adjustment Team appears, there’s no end to the questions. 

(For starters: Who are these men really? What does their boss, “The Chairman,” have against hiring women? If the Bureau can meddle in human lives/anticipate human choices, why is chance still a factor? Can chance circumvent The Chairman’s plans? And did the Adjustment Team members adopt their style after one too many viewings of “The Maltese Falcon”?)

“The Adjustment Bureau,” by the end, has the rare problem of seeming too short to reach its lofty ambitions. It also demands acceptance of a storyline contains a fair amount of what aren’t exactly plot holes (more like weighty concepts abandoned?), but something like them. Despite these flaws, Nolfi’s directorial debut succeeds as a romance and a thriller because it never gets too bogged down in rambling explanations. Nolfi lays out the story matter-of-factly: David, an up-and-comer full of youthful idealism, looks a sure bet to become an N.Y. senator. But when the papers make his past — including a college mooning incident — public, he loses his lead. Practicing his concession speech in a hotel men’s room, he meets Elise (Blunt, radiant as ever), a ballerina who’s just crashed a wedding and is hiding from security. Their instant connection and brief kiss inspire Norris to scrap his P.C. speech and give an uncommonly earnest talk that wins him more fans. He reconnects with Elise on the bus and gets her number, but the Adjustment Bureau — led by Richardson (John Slattery) — steps in. There’s a plan for David’s life, and Elise isn’t part of it, Richardson explains. He destroys Elise’s number and threatens to have David “reset” (his memory erased) if he reveals anything about the Bureau. Richardson, however, underestimated coworker Harry (Anthony Mackie, as good here as he was in “Half Nelson”), a particularly compassionate “adjustor” who feels responsible for David and Elise’s second meeting and tells David more. The Bureau adjustors knows everyone’s plan; it’s their business to protect the plan. They use many methods: spilled coffees, missed taxis, dead cellphone batteries, even “reprogramming” people to make different choices. Most people accept their plans without question. But David, Harry discovers, is not a cooperative sheep.

The latter half of “The Adjustment Bureau” is where the action kicks in, including a chase, helmed by agent Thompson (the perenially menacing Terence Stamp) through New York’s maze of underground tunnels and doors that open to places that explode logic. The effects are blessedly minimal compared to, say, “The Matrix” because they are not central to the story. They only serve to outline the film’s most endearing purpose: David and Elise’s love story. Damon and Blunt are perfectly matched, with Blunt ensuring Elise is funny and vital and Damon giving a lot of emotion and energy to his part. For all the lofty philosophical mutterings and theological concepts, it is these two actors who keep the film grounded.

Grade: B-

Coens’ “True Grit” remake finds sharper focus, sharper talent

Steinfeld, Damon and Bridges (from left) are a posse to be reckoned with in "True Grit."

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is very concerned with honor because she believes her family has lost theirs. It died with her father, shot by a murderous scofflaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie means to get that honor back, and a helping of justice with it, and she’ll do that however she can. This 14-year-old is not about to smile and fiddle with her bonnet while the local lawmen sit on their hands. “True grit” may be the descriptor of the bounty hunter Mattie seeks out, but it should be stitched into her saddle. Suffer fools she will not.

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen know their way around determined characters like Mattie. They ought to — they’ve written enough of them. These souls, all very different, share a sense of drive (whether it’s to do good, evil or something in-between): Marge Gunderson, Tom Reagan, Loren Visser, Jeff Lebowski, who found a urine-stained rug reason enough to put down the joint and find the hero within. This affinity makes the Coen brothers a crackerjack choice to to remake “True Grit”; obviously anyone who’d remake a classic Western starring John Wayne needs to be familiar with intestinal fortitude. As they are wont to do, the Coens even go one better, swapping Robert Duvall for Matt Damon and The Duke for — loins, gird thyselves — The Dude. Wayne fans may cry heresy; those who open their minds a touch, though, will find these sly directors know precisely what they’re doing. “True Grit” is not a lazy trace of the original, an homage with meatier performances, more inventive casting and a different (and arguably more interesting) focus. 

“True Grit” 2010 shifts the spotlight to Mattie and her quest, thrusting Steinfeld front and center. She displays the same fearlessness as her character, infusing Mattie with determination to burn. Hers is the breakout performance of 2010, maybe the decade. Mattie strikes out alone into the Oklahoma terrain in search of someone to help her hunt down Chaney. Her only stipulation? She gets to do the killing. She hears of a local legend, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a full-time drunkard/sometime bounty hunter rumored to have “true grit,” and offers him a reward for catching her father’s killer. Cogburn mistakes Mattie’s youth for naïveté at first, but her persistence and her money win him over. The two set out for Indian territory, where Chaney has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper’s (Barry Pepper) gang, with a squeaky third wheel: conceited Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, sinister and funny), who’s chased Chaney all the way from Texas. Because LaBoeuf is everything Cogburn is not (articulate, sober, possessed of soap), it’s a mismatch that produces some big laughs. That patented Bridges mumble makes off-the-cuffers into one-liners. Cogburn’s assessment of a violently botched shootout in which LaBoeuf is injured — “That didn’t pan out” — is golden. The line belongs to Portis, who wrote the novel, but damn if it wouldn’t sound right at home in “Blood Simple.”

The gallows humor is a Coen brothers staple; aside from that, “True Grit” bears little resemblance to the Coens’ body of work. They’re trying someone else’s new tricks instead of getting up to their old ones. The film looks like a vintage Western, with its endless expanses of land and looming skies. Cinematographer Roger Deakins revives his gift for gently coaxing his surroundings to tell their own story. It’s a bit sad that the scenery must play understudy to the essentially faultless performances. Brolin has one note, but he plays it smashingly, while Pepper’s ringleader is a surprisingly reasonable chap. Damon plays LaBoeuf for laughs and adds a welcome undercurrent of personal entitlement. Bridges’ gruff, disheveled ne’er-do-well has critics foaming at the mouth with praise. It’s all deserved. He puts such a Jeff Bridges stamp on the performance that comparisons to John Wayne become irrelevent. Even more impressive is Steinfeld, whose screen presence often rivals Bridges’. Steinfeld makes us believe she is the girl who won’t rest until her father’s killer is barking in hell. And you’d better believe she’ll have his leash in a death grip.  

Grade: A

Why Feds are like mushrooms

Don't cross Frank, or he'll cap you and make fun of the way your corpse falls.

Knowing my affinity for all things Scorsese in general and “The Departed” in particular, Andrew of Encore’s World of Film fame asked me, Darren and Heather to shower praise — er, I mean objective commentary — on the many merits of the Oscar-approved best film of 2006. Click here or on the photo to read our reasons why “The Departed” is better for you than cranberry juice during that certain time of the month.

Oscar snubs its nose at you, Matt Damon (et. al)

"What do you mean I didn't get an Oscar nomination? I gained 40 POUNDS!"

Every year begins with the same blasted vow: I won’t wear my heart on my sleeve. I won’t get sucked in. I’ll be strong and aloof. In short, I swear I won’t let myself get emotionally involved in the Oscar race.

PFFFFFFT. Go on. Now pull the other one.

Yeah, so that never happens. Never comes close to happening. It’s all gibberish. Maybe my real resolution should be that one of these days I might flush all these delusions of keeping my heart out of the Oscar race down le porcelain bowl … but it won’t be this year! Especially not this year, when the Best Picture race got expanded to 10 (what a nice, big, fat round number, no?), a sure signal that the Academy had opened its ranks to deserving films that, before, never would have had a chance.

While that may be true (say what you want about “Avatar,” but rare is the blockbuster that crashes the Best Picture ball), in true Academy fashion these snobbish cats have doled out some fairly glaring and some just-plain-wrong snubs. They are as follows:

Best Picture / “Star Trek,” “Two Lovers” — Mental gymnastics are required to reason out why “Avatar,” with its amazing visuals and so-so storyline, merited an Oscar nod while “Star Trek” did not. J.J. Abrams’ energetic, heartfelt summer blockbuster is nothing short of a total reinvention. Thrilling action, special effects, wit, verve, inside jokes, great acting — “Star Trek” has them all in spades. James Gray’s “Two Lovers takes what could have been a Lifetime TV movie — an aimless, emotionally damaged man (Joaquin Phoenix) torn between two women — and turns it into a nuanced character study with almost no melodrama, and a very fine motion picture deserving of some statues.

Best Actor / Damon, Maguire, Phoenix — Oh, the triple negligence the Academy has perpetrated in this, its 82nd awards season. First is their thoughtless brush-aside of Matt Damon, who comically and painfully captured the disordered mind of whistleblower Mark Whitacre in Stephen Soderbergh’s deceptively jaunty “The Informant!” (His acting there was better than “Invictus.”) Second was the blatant disregard of Tobey Maguire’s blistering portrayal of a POW so ruined by war that he cannot reclaim his family and life in “Brothers.” Last but for certainly not least is the absence of Joaquin Phoenix’s name, which is a travesty considering his troubled Leonard Kraditor in “Two Lovers” may be the most haunting, commendable piece of acting he’s ever done.

Best Actress / Abbie Cornish — In the Focus Features 2006 film “Candy,” Abbie Cornish gave us a glimpse of her blossoming talent, but in “Bright Star,”* about Romantic poet John Keat’s short-lived, passionate romance with Fanny Brawne, she emerges fully formed. She gives beaming vitality, spirit and life to one of poetry’s greatest-known muses, and for that she deserves much, much acclaim. Why, Academy, do you insist on withholding the love?

Best Supporting Actress / Laurent, Rossellini — Considering the hot, exhilarating mess of a spectacle that is “Inglourious Basterds”, perhaps it’s inevitable that someone would get lost in the mix. That someone, however, should not be Parisian actress Mélanie Laurent, for her Shosanna is the emotional center of the film; her outstanding one-on-one with Waltz in the cafe should have cemented that award. Isabella Rossellini, who plays Leonard’s worried mother in “Two Lovers,” is no less subtle or devastating. Her quiet performance is a thing of beauty, and it’s the crowning achievement of a career that hasn’t had that many. 

Best Original Screenplay / “The Brothers Bloom” — Rian Johnson is the man who gave us “Brick,” that outrageously stylish mix of gumshoe talk and teen hormones. And now this, a wildly twisty dramedy about two conmen brothers — one wants out; the other turns long cons into art — and the rich, innocent mark they’re about to bilk out of millions. Is it arty, maybe a bit too arch and complex? Maybe. Does it possess the kind of fiendish cleverness and originality Hollywood sorely lacks? Abso-damn-lutely.

Best Original Song / “Stu’s Song” — I’m not about to argue that “Stu’s Song,” hilariously performed by Ed Helms in “The Hangover,” is overflowing with the emotional depth of, say, “The Weary Kind” or has the glitter-and-sequins of “Take It All.” But it’s still an tremendously funny tune that manages to be clever and neatly sum up what “The Hangover” is all about. And that last line is PRICELESS.

*Review forthcoming

Damon grounds Soderbergh’s gnarly, screwball “The Informant!”

Agent 007, listen up: You got nothin' on Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), who blows the whistle on corporate price fixing in "The Informant!"

Agent 007, listen up: You got nothin' on Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), who blows the whistle on corporate price fixing in "The Informant!"

Matt Damon, it would seem, is on a mission to make Trey Parker and Matt Stone chow down on some crow — big, heapin’ pie shells full of it. Since 2004, when “Team America” gave us the Matt Damon puppet, the Oscar winner has headlined two more “Ocean’s” movies, another Bourne thriller and mind-benders like “The Departed” and “Syriana.” And now he’s gone and tackled Mark Whitacre, that squirrelly fellow who blew the lid off a huge price-fixing scheme perpetrated by lysine development conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), in the mid-1990s.

How does Damon fare, you wonder? Let’s just say Trey and Matt might need to rifle their utensil drawers for some big ole’ wooden spoons. Damon is flat-out fantastic in Soderbergh’s twisty, witty corporate thriller, finding comedy in Whitacre’s delusions — he’s 0014, he insists, because he’s “twice as smart as 007″ — but also the boredom and unhappiness that puddle at the roots. This is a whopper of a performance, sad and humorous and disturbing, but so subtle that it probably won’t earn Damon any nominations. But acting this good is a triumph in itself.

Soderbergh, who seems to have some innate softness for whistle-blowers (“Erin Brockovich,” “The Insider”), lets Damon stand at the center of Scott Burns’ adapted screenplay. That’s a wise decision, considering it gives “The Informant!” a dose of humanity to offset the air of whimsy, the pretzel-like script and the dementedly chirpy score (direct all praise to composer Marvin Hamlisch). Whitacre’s an ambitious man looking to ascend the ranks at ADM, so he’s none too happy when his wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) forces him to detail ADM’s global price-fixing plot to FBI Special Agent Brian Shepherd (Scott Bakula, playing the bemused straight man). The feds get involved — including Special Agent Bob Herndon (Joel McHale, who’s sold out and probably can’t keep at it with that “Talk Soup” gig much longer) — and Whitacre ends up sporting wires, orchestrating clandestine meetings and, eventually, narcing on pretty much everyone who signs his sizable paychecks. And yet there’s so much more to the story, including a complex subplot involving a $9 million embezzlement scheme so mind-boggling in its flagrant stupidity that the feds don’t think to look for it.

Certainly there’s enough mayhem in Burns’ screenplay — adapted from Kurt Eichenwald’s book — to keep viewers occupied for days. How could ADM keep a scam this big going so long? How many people were really involved, and how many had dirt on their hands? And the biggest question: Why would a man netting well over $300,000 a year even think of making a peep? The beauty of “The Informant!” is that we get few answers, and we get no answer at all to the last question. It’s all buildup and almost no release, no spoon-fed conclusion or resolution to settle that slightly sick feeling in our stomachs. While it’s plain fact that ADM faced stiff fines — to the tune of $100 million — and a few top execs did light jail time, Whitacre spent more than eight years in federal prison on those embezzlement charges. He did a public service, sure, but he paid handsomely for it. We’re left wondering uneasily: Did the real crooks get away because the informant had a few stacks of cash in his closet?

The way Damon plays him, no one can tell. He gives away nothing about Whitacre’s motivations (think Chris Cooper in “Breach”), providing us only with a surprisingly nuanced portrait of a man living so far inside his own head it’s a wonder he could hear people when they spoke to him. He spins wild yarns while acting cooperative, then retreats into his inner stream-of-consciousness monologue. Damon reveals more humanity in these moments than we expect — just watch the scene where his wife (Lynskey’s marvelous here) and Shepherd (Bakula has depth too) catch him in his last lie. The emotions — exhaustion and fear and resignation — that play on Damon’s face will twist your heart painfully. That’s what sticks with us when the music fades and the jokes dry up. Somehow the words “Matt Damon” don’t ring quite so funny. 

Grade: B+

Top 5 “WTF?” moments in Scorcese’s “The Departed”

jack_nicholson9

"OMG WTF?": Damon's shock won't compare to your own as "The Departed" slams one "WTF?" moment after another over your head.

So I have this friend. (Every truly interesting story begins this way, right?) You may have heard of him; his story is the stuff of urban legend. Or it should be. At any rate, he’s the guy who let a copy of “The Departed” — that would be the 2007 Oscar winner for Best Picture, savvy readers — gather dust on his TV stand for, oh, about six months. Yes, it sat there, untouched, unappreciated, unwanted and unwatched for six months. I’d mention it periodically (re: “aren’t you ever going to watch that?”) and he’d make some noise about not being able to make “that kind of commitment” to sit down and watch it. (He fancies himself something of a comedian, this one.)

Then one day something crazy and momentous happened: He watched it. And watched it again … and again … and again. (I can’t hazard a guess at how many times he’s seen the various parts in various orders; however, I suspect the number would make me cringe with laughter.) So you might say he’s become something of a “Departed” connoisseur.

It’s not surprising that during a recent discussion of great gangster films (“GoodFellas”: hell yes; “Miller’s Crossing”: I say also yes) “The Departed” came up. Of course, you can’t discuss “The Departed” without saying the words “what the f!@#$!?” (in that order and with an infinite number of inflections) roughly 30 times. It’s a film littered with “WTF?” moments; I’d bet my next paycheck it has, minute for minute, more “WTF?” moments than any movie ever made (excluding “Syriana,” which makes less sense the more I watch it, and “The Usual Suspects”).

So behold the birth of the newest list: The Top 5 “WTF?” moments in “The Departed.” (Note: There are spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen the movie (a) I blow my nose at you and (b) Stop reading, get off your duff and buy — not rent — it.)

5) Baby daddy drama: A weary, lonely shrink (the divine Vera Farmiga). Her is-he-or-isn’t-he? impotent fiancee (Matt Damon). Her hardscrabble but kind-hearted patient (Leo DiCaprio). Oh, what a love triangle it is, and in the next-to-last scene in “The Departed” we viewers — heads still reeling from Number 1 on this countdown — discover the head doc is in a family way. That’s surprise enough, but better still is Scorcese’s absolute refusal to divulge the father-to-be’s identity. (Even if you think you know, you can’t prove it.) I do so love a director who pimp-slaps me around.

4) Sweet revenge (the final scene): The last five minutes of “The Departed” kick you in the face, throw you to the ground so you can pick up the teeth you lost and then lift your spirits with a blackly comic and satisfying ending where Matt Damon’s charmed life meets a dramatic end — but in a way you’d never, EVER expect and with an abundance of sarcasm and satire. Consider it the bittersweet cherry topper on this “WTF?” sundae.

3) A guy walks into a warehouse … and gets thrown off it: Talk about a twisted punchline to that old joke. Captain Queenan/Martin Sheen’s untimely demise is one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shockers, something so totally and wholly unexpected that even the shrewdest viewer/critic can’t see it coming. Once the shock wears off (it takes at least 10 minutes), the full impact will have you whispering “WTF?” with the particular abject hopelessness of a duped moviegoer who knows no explanation is forthcoming.

2) Will the real FBI informant please stand up?: So we have a rat who’s pretending to be looking for a rat … and a rat who’s pretending not to be a rat while looking for his own rat. Confused? A careful viewing of Jack Nicholson’s role in the second half of “The Departed” will clear up the mystery. Get used to whiplash; you won’t be shaking your head in disbelief so much as whipping it around constantly “Exorcist”-style. My response? W. T. F?.

1) I get capped, you get capped, we all get capped: This one will make you want to pull the “emergency stop” button before the elevator parks at your floor. This blow-your-mindhole moment inaugurates — with a very literal bang — a slew of gangland-style executions that become more shocking as the brain matter coats the walls. You’ve never seen a death scene this shocking — NEVER; it bears repeating — and you won’t again. It will have you reeling for days; in fact, it might have you shrieking “WTFF?” (“what the effing f?” of course). Thus, it is deserves the honor of being christened the Number 1 “WTF?” moment in “The Departed.”

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