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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-

Quick Picks: “Valkyrie,” “Yes Man”

“Valkyrie” (Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson)

In “Tropic Thunder,” he did the unthinkable: resurrected an air-sucking, headed-toward-the-light acting career. Does he do it again in “Valkyrie,” Brian Singer’s tense, understated thriller about a failed 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, seize control of Germany and wave a white flag to the Allies? Not quite. Then again, Cruise’s in-control performance as party loyalist-turned-traitorous schemer Col. Claus von Stauffenberg isn’t meant for show. Neither is Singer’s somber, commendably even-handed creation . Every scene is measured and precise, planned and executed with military-like precision. The same goes for the film’s best performances — Wilkinson’s buttoned-up, duplicitious Gen. Friedrich Fromm is bone-chilling, while Branagh practically sweats sheer desperation. If it all seems a little too muted and by-the-book, beware: the tension surprises you, and so does “Valkyrie.”

Grade: B+

“Yes Man” (Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Terence Stamp)

A movie about a man who says “yes” to every question? Sounds like the makings of a) Eddie Murphy’s moronical, pratfall-heavy next project or b) a tender, smartly observed comedy about life and learning. Wrong. But either movie might be better than the disappointingly blah “Yes Man.” Carrey tries hard as Danny, a sourpuss who keeps life at bay until a self-help guru (Terence Stamp) convinces him to open up. Enter the ever-quirky Deschanel as Allison, Danny’s polar-opposite love interest. Shock of shocks, Deschanel and Carrey have a delightfully peppery chemistry. And Carrey has a zippy rapport with Brit Rhys Darby, who plays Norman, his adorably zany dolt of a boss (think Michael Scott a la “The Office”). But don’t expect the same kind of zing from “Yes Man,” which tries so hard to be ingratiating and cute that it’s about as sincere as, well, a real-life yes man.

Grade: C