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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-

Review: “The Hurt Locker” (2009)

Stand SSG William James (Jeremy Renner) on any grocery store cereal aisle and he’s utterly lost, overwhelmed and frozen with indecision. Put that same man in front of a bomb half-buried under sandy rubble on a Baghdad street and watch his eyes come alive. To call SSG James an “adrenaline junkie,” however, is to suggest he’s fix-focused and remorseless. Renner, coming out of nowhere with a fearless performance, gives this seemingly careless soldier complexity, including a desire to understand his fixation. “You know why I’m that way?” he asks Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). There’s no real answer for a question like this, James seems to understand, and even if there was, it wouldn’t do anything to kill the adrenaline buzz.

Too often in war films we don’t get characters as human and as layered as SSG William James; instead, we get caricatures — hunky heroes (here’s looking at you, Ben Affleck/Capt. Rafe McCawley) or mouthy wild cards like Robert Duvall’s napalm-loving Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore. With “The Hurt Locker,” director Kathryn Bigelow seems intent on changing that without skimping on the tension, the action or the explosions. Using hand-held cameras, she creates a war film that feels not shaky or low-budget but surprisingly intimate. What this technique can do is perfectly amazing: every grimace, every bullet wound, every bead of sweat gets up-close-and-personal treatment. These cameras transplant viewers to the streets of Baghdad, staring down the barrel of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) wired with enough firepower to KO a city block and everyone in it. Bigelow’s reliance on this technique infuses every frame of the film with nail-biting intensity. When an IED blows, we feel the vibrations and taste the sand. This is war at the hot, dirty ground level.

Yet as impressive as Bigelow’s vision is, it’s scriptwriter Mark Boal’s characters that make “The Hurt Locker” one of the most personal and psychologically intriguing war films ever made. Renner’s SSG James is a commanding figure, but so are his fellow soldiers. James steps in as team leader of the Bravo Company’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit, and the company members — Sgt. Sanborn and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty, nicely capturing the anguish of a man not prepared for what he’s seeing), still smarting from witnessing the original team lead’s death — immediately distrust James. He’s reckless to a fault, pulling off his headset to dismantle an IED hidden in an abandoned car. When a cabbie is mistaken as an insurgent and gets roughed up, James is dependably cavalier: “If he wasn’t an insurgent before, he is now.” He doesn’t rely on his team members for intel and charges head-first into unknown situations. Both Sanborn and Eldridge sense a recklessness in their superior that frightens them, and they know James isn’t in this for patriotic reasons. Mackie, a remarkably subtle actor, communicates his wariness and weariness through his eyes; in a later scene with Renner, he is more blunt about his feelings: “I’m not ready to die.”

Renner is alternately fierce and quietly devastating, but never does he shy away from showing us a man acutely aware he has a problem but likes the charge too much to stop. Renner also finds an undercurrent of pride in SSG James, a thoroughly ordinary father/husband (to Evangeline Lily, whose few scenes are poignant) in civilian life but an extraordinary soldier.

At the film’s beginning, Bigelow provides what seems like an ominous warning: “War is a drug.” But by the end of “The Hurt Locker,” New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges’ quote seems less like an admonition and more like a thought-provoking, very uncomfortable question. In war, Bigelow seems to prompt us, who do we really want on the battlefield — the soldier longing for home whose head isn’t quite in the game, or the reckless fighter who just can’t get enough, the one dashing right into the smoke wearing the grin of a junkie with an empty needle in his vein? Only the boldest director would dare shine a light into that dark corner of the human mind, and only a movie as good as “The Hurt Locker” would make us consider the repercussions of our honest answer.

Grade: A