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Dull Day at the Office

Despite its loopy Philip K. Dick origins, The Adjustment Bureau is as bland as a gray cubicle.

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Damon and Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau.  

If you’re the type that wonders about Fate versus Free Will (Do we have fixed destinies? Are our lives in the hands of an invisible power?), then you’ll enjoy ruminating on the comic conceits of The Adjustment Bureau—perhaps during the movie, to pass the time. It’s based on a slender short story by that visionary paranoiac Philip K. Dick in which the notion that forces control our minds is treated farcically: We’re being directed not by sinister totalitarians but by blundering supernatural bureaucrats, all under the direction of an unseen “Old Man” who labors to keep humankind on course. It must have seemed like a good fit for the first-time director George Nolfi, who co-wrote the last Bourne picture and now casts Matt Damon as a formerly ambitious politician on the run from cosmic agents in fedoras clutching souped-up iPad-like slates who want to keep him from hooking up with his true love (Emily Blunt). But the result plays like Bourne Lite. It’s too blandly whimsical to generate much suspense—or romance or comedy or religious uplift.

What goes wrong? The bureau is staffed with characters played by good actors like John Slattery (dull-witted company man), Anthony Mackie (sympathetic ally), and Terence Stamp (scary mind-blanker), but none of them gets a chance to cut loose—and Mackie unfortunately evokes Will Smith as Damon’s magical New Age black caddie in the soul-curdling The Legend of Bagger Vance. It would have been better to use the talking dog from Dick’s original story: The movie needs more wisecracking animals, or anything, really, that adds some razzle-dazzle. There is one lively CGI running gag: doors that lead from office buildings to baseball stadiums to the Statue of Liberty—a supernatural “substrate” allowing Adjustment Bureau members to cruise around New York City. But Nolfi must have been trying to keep the story from getting bogged down with fancy effects—an excellent idea if there’d been much of a story.

Or more heat. The doughy Damon and aristocratic Blunt don’t match up physically, and they never get any Hepburn-Tracy rhythms going that might create some current. He’s supposedly an ex-ruffian who has lost an in-the-bag U.S. Senate election over a thoughtless bit of mooning. She’s a zany, free-­spirited ballet dancer who pops out of a stall in the men’s room while he’s rehearsing his rote concession speech and inspires him to ditch the platitudes and Tell It Like It Is. But Damon has no glad-handing spark, and Blunt—though she moves like a dancer—seems too brainy to play this woman, who suddenly turns into a passive ninny waiting for her knight to whisk her away.

Why does the Adjustment Bureau want to keep Damon and Blunt apart? They have higher plans for him. But he’d rather have the girl. And maybe it’s unfair, maybe I’m holding the picture to too high a standard, but with all the horrors on the world’s horizon, I hated this dope for his mulish, dopey free will—especially given the lack of romantic chemistry! The Adjustment Bureau is so annoying it made me think totalitarian mind control wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

The Farrelly Brothers’ comedy Hall Pass is often desperate, often droopy. But I liked it—I like most of their films—for its blend of the cringeworthy and the compassionate. They’ve made a gross-out comedy about the perpetual immaturity of the American male that has, amazingly enough, a mature perspective.

I did groan when I heard the premise, which made me think the Farrellys were regressing. But it’s actually the male characters who long to regress. Married fortyish buddies Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis feel sexually deprived and live in a fantasy world, prone to checking out passing young women while laughably trying to hide their interest. But their spouses (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate) miss nothing. A psychologist (Joy Behar) says to give the boys a week off from marriage and let them get the wanderlust out of their systems: a “hall pass.”

The idea is, frankly, creepy, suggesting that middle-aged men sentenced to monogamy can go back to high school—which of course they can’t, even with “permission.” Although you’ve never heard the words “Farrellys” and “Eugene O’Neill” in the same sentence, the film evokes the pathos of O’Neill’s “life lie”—here, the idea that men in committed relationships need to believe it’s only their spouses who prevent them from scoring. For all the excretory, penile, and cunnilinguistic slapstick, it’s the women’s emotions that finally take center stage. On a hall pass themselves, they like the attention of men. Then comes the grim realization that once more they’re objects in the psyches of creeps.

When Hall Pass needs a shot of energy, Richard Jenkins arrives as a self-professed love doctor, a worldly hipster who analyzes the availability of women with the keen eye of Sherlock Holmes. But it’s Wilson’s movie. For years dubbed “the Butterscotch Stallion” in racy tabloids, he now sports thinning hair and slack muscles, and his trademark spacey cool is tinged with regret. It’s a terrific performance—and terrifying. Owen Wilson is aging: Where goeth my own youth?

The 2010 Cannes Film Festival grand-prize winner was the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a serenely fantastical tone poem in which the title character (Thanapat Saisaymar), slowly dying of kidney failure, is visited by the spirits of his wife, his long-lost son (transformed, for some reason, into a hairy beast), and other creatures from the twilight world—drawn to him, we’re told, because they “sense his sickness.” Underscored by a low, insistent rumble and the eerie calls of exotic birds, Weerasethakul’s shots of dark forest, dense jungle vegetation, and glowing-eyed creatures who gaze into the camera are layered and mysterious. But they can also be affectingly plain, like the long, static take in which the wife’s ghost (looking ordinary and middle-aged, as she did when she died) simply fades in and begins to speak. Savoring the last moments in his body, saying good-bye to the world for now, preparing for the trip to an ancient cave to begin his new journey, Boonmee expresses one regret: that he poisoned his karma by killing too many Communists. The universe is now fluid, all boundaries dissolving, all species interchangeable. (As if to prove this, a woman welcomes a talking catfish between her legs.) Uncle Boonmee is entrancing—and also, if you’re not sufficiently steeped in its rhythms, narcotizing. Truth to tell, I wouldn’t be surprised if a good percentage of its audience, even at the Film Forum, finds it excruciatingly boring. Adjust your biorhythms accordingly.

The Adjustment Bureau
Directed by George Nolfi. Universal. PG-13.

Hall Pass
Directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly. Warner Bros. R.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Strand Releasing. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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