You probably haven’t noticed Keanu Reeves’ absence from the big screen over the last few years because to say that you have noticed would imply that he’d actually made a movie worth your time in recent memory. That’s clearly not the case. He returns to theaters with his first starring role since 2008’s The Day The Earth Stood Still in Malcolm Venville’s Henry’s Crime an ensemble comedy about a bunch of bumbling Buffalo natives who plan to rob a bank despite the fact that their ringleader just got out of jail for “attempting” the same job a year earlier.
The film focuses more on the ensemble than the heist and Venville assembled a great cast (including James Caan Vera Farmiga Bill Duke and Fisher Stevens among others) to fill the various roles but he and screenwriters Sacha Gervasi and David White wasted all that talent on an uninspired script that’s frustratingly executed by the director. It’s as if they were writing a pair of separate films simultaneously and just sandwiched them together hoping that two kinds of vanilla would magically create a unique new flavor. It doesn’t especially when both the romantic and comedic aspects of the story are as bland as the dreary blue-collar setting.
But wait it gets worse. There’s virtually no tone to the film; it moves along at an excruciatingly boring pace as its comatose characters interact with one another. The pin-drop silence that runs through a large part of the picture has the same effect as an Ambien and will undoubtedly leave you snoring. You know you’re watching a bad movie when the only sign of life comes from the soulful soundtrack comprised of R&B tracks from the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Vera Farmiga bless her tries hard to make her fledgling actress and anti-romantic character interesting but she’s got nothing to work off of because her co-star the always wooden Reeves is so naïve innocent and awkward it’s sickening. James Caan is endearing as a make-shift father figure for Henry; I found myself wishing that the story was told from his semi-comical point of view. And though I’d pretty much watch Peter Stormare in anything (he’s funny as Farmiga’s foreign theater director) he’s hardly got enough screen time to save Henry’s Crime from the qualitative abyss.
The age-old debate over fate vs. free will has been and always will be a tough theme to crack in any medium but with the benefits of modern filmmaking technology the theory can be explored in ways that Philip K. Dick never imagined. However when one relies too heavily on spectacle to tell a story a piece of cerebral science fiction can quickly become just another action extravaganza. In this day and age there’s a fine line between the two; The Matrix walked that tightrope with style and grace while Next never found its footing in the first place. Fortunately the precious work of novelist Dick has for the most part been treated with respect by Hollywood (the aforementioned Nic Cage dud notwithstanding) but that doesn’t necessarily mean movies based on his stories are completely faithful to his vision.
Case in point: George Nolfi’s directorial debut The Adjustment Bureau an adaptation of Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team.” The film stars Matt Damon as David Norris a successful businessman and rising political candidate who after a chance encounter with the girl of his dreams (Emily Blunt) loses a crucial election. He happens to run into her on a Manhattan bus the following week before finding his office swarming with masked men who are “adjusting” everyone inside. Richardson (John Slattery) the man in charge captures Norris who unsuccessfully flees the scene after seeing behind “a curtain he wasn’t even supposed to know existed” as the enigmatic figure puts it. From that point on Norris must live with the knowledge that he (and we for that matter) is not in control of his own life. Rather the choices he makes fit perfectly into “The Plan” that’s been written by “the Chairman”.
In relation to my earlier statement I have to say that Nolfi’s picture looks stunning but his natural urban aesthetic doesn’t overpower the story. Sleek contemporary production design and elegant costumes characterize the high-concept story and the wraithlike agents who shape our destinies. Topically we’re dealing with some heavy material but Nolfi and editor Jay Rabinowitz move the action along at a brisk pace that keeps you engaged and entertained without having to try. The film is properly proportioned as a chase thriller romantic adventure and sci-fi fantasy and thankfully no component overshadows another.
Setting the film in the world of politics and big business helps make its larger-than-life revelations a bit more accessible (as do appearances from Michael Bloomberg Jon Stewart and Chuck Scarborough) while providing sub-text about the corruption involved in elections and campaigns (there are conspicuous shades of The Manchurian Candidate in the movie) but the writer-director often tries too hard for broad appeal. For a film with existential implications as severe as they are here the dialogue is at times hokey and superficial. Dick’s source material is far more abstract and Nolfi for the sake of commercial success panders to the palette of soccer moms and mallrats.
What’s worse is his unwarranted exposition of the Bureau a shadowy organization whose major allure is anonymity. Some secrets are best kept and less can be so much more when crafting a mysterious atmosphere; Nolfi reaches that level of magnetic curiosity but squanders it as he reveals the truth about the Bureau and its grand scheme. On the other hand he brushes over the technical lingo between agents Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) McCrady (Anthony Ruivivar) and others without explanation perhaps hoping that the ambiguous terminology will fool you into thinking that his script is smarter than it really is.
Even though Nolfi’s allegorical conclusions are uncomfortably ham-fisted the chemistry between Damon and Blunt alone is enough to enchant you; this is one highly watchable cinematic pairing that should be revisited as soon as possible. Their innocent relationship blossoms organically and together they make it seem as natural on screen as it is for their star-crossed characters. Even if you have a hard time believing in higher powers or manipulative Orwellian forces you’ll have faith in David and Elise’s fated relationship one of the most captivating couplings I’ve seen on the big-screen in some time.