If youâ€™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 youâ€™ll enjoy ruminating on the comic conceits of The Adjustment Bureauâ€”perhaps during the movie, to pass the time. Itâ€™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: Weâ€™re being directed not by sinister totalitarians but by blundering supernatural bureaucrats, all under the direction of an unseen â€œOld Manâ€ 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. Itâ€™s too blandly whimsical to generate much suspenseâ€”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 looseâ€”and Mackie unfortunately evokes Will Smith as Damonâ€™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 Dickâ€™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 Libertyâ€”a supernatural â€œsubstrateâ€ 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 effectsâ€”an excellent idea if thereâ€™d been much of a story.
Or more heat. The doughy Damon and aristocratic Blunt donâ€™t match up physically, and they never get any Hepburn-Tracy rhythms going that might create some current. Heâ€™s supposedly an ex-ruffian who has lost an in-the-bag U.S. Senate election over a thoughtless bit of mooning. Sheâ€™s a zany, free-Âspirited ballet dancer who pops out of a stall in the menâ€™s room while heâ€™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 Bluntâ€”though she moves like a dancerâ€”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 heâ€™d rather have the girl. And maybe itâ€™s unfair, maybe Iâ€™m holding the picture to too high a standard, but with all the horrors on the worldâ€™s horizon, I hated this dope for his mulish, dopey free willâ€”especially given the lack of romantic chemistry! The Adjustment Bureau is so annoying it made me think totalitarian mind control wouldnâ€™t be such a bad thing.
The Farrelly Brothersâ€™ comedy Hall Pass is often desperate, often droopy. But I liked itâ€”I like most of their filmsâ€”for its blend of the cringeworthy and the compassionate. Theyâ€™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 itâ€™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 â€œhall pass.â€
The idea is, frankly, creepy, suggesting that middle-aged men sentenced to monogamy can go back to high schoolâ€”which of course they canâ€™t, even with â€œpermission.â€ Although youâ€™ve never heard the words â€œFarrellysâ€ and â€œEugene Oâ€™Neillâ€ in the same sentence, the film evokes the pathos of Oâ€™Neillâ€™s â€œlife lieâ€â€”here, the idea that men in committed relationships need to believe itâ€™s only their spouses who prevent them from scoring. For all the excretory, penile, and cunnilinguistic slapstick, itâ€™s the womenâ€™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 theyâ€™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 itâ€™s Wilsonâ€™s movie. For years dubbed â€œthe Butterscotch Stallionâ€ in racy tabloids, he now sports thinning hair and slack muscles, and his trademark spacey cool is tinged with regret. Itâ€™s a terrific performanceâ€”and terrifying. Owen Wilson is aging: Where goeth my own youth?
The 2010 Cannes Film Festival grand-prize winner was the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakulâ€™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 worldâ€”drawn to him, weâ€™re told, because they â€œsense his sickness.â€ Underscored by a low, insistent rumble and the eerie calls of exotic birds, Weerasethakulâ€™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 wifeâ€™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 entrancingâ€”and also, if youâ€™re not sufficiently steeped in its rhythms, narcotizing. Truth to tell, I wouldnâ€™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.
Directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly. Warner Bros. R.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Strand Releasing. NR.