He still hasn’t had a moment when he smashes the walls down and announces himself, like Tom Hanks did when he won Best Actor back-to-back for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump in 1994-95, and it’s possible the moment may never come (becoming an icon is a trickier course to navigate than becoming a star), but if I had to bet on someone of his generation to do it, it would be Damon. His movies are not always successful commercially, and occasionally they’re not all that interesting artistically. But Damon always does something worth your attention, no matter what he’s in.
Excluding voice-over for Titan A.E. and a bit role (which was awesome) in Eurotrip, The Adjustment Bureau is probably the worst Matt Damon movie I’ve seen. But Damon himself is good in it. The man’s just a consummate professional.
The premise of Adjustment Bureau is that a group of supernatural bureaucrats dressed like Mad Men extras are overseeing everything we human beings do on earth, making slight “adjustments” when we veer off a “Plan,” which has been made by the “Creator.” They take especial interest in a love affair between a young Congressman (Damon) and a dancer (Emily Blunt) who meet by chance on the night that Damon’s character loses a bid for the U.S. Senate.
At one point in the film one of the supernatural agents, explaining how things work to Damon’s Congressman, recites one of those “we’ve had many names–some have called us angels, some call us fate, etc.” speeches, and I mentally checked out on the supernatural conceit. The last time I remember hearing this speech was in Hancock, but I’m pretty sure we also got some version of it in Bruce Almighty, City of Angels, and Unbreakable. The best-case scenario when someone gives this type of speech is that it smoothes your transition into whatever fantastical element you’re being asked to accept. But in a movie like Adjustment Bureau, which presents all of the hurly-burly technical operations of the fantastic without convincing you it has a reason to exist, the speech is damning evidence that the writer and director never had a reason to convince you of. There’s no intrinsic link between the human love story and the convoluted machinations of the Bureau. Much of the dialogue tries to force a reason upon us—the Congressman and the dancer were supposedly, in thirteen previous versions of the Plan, supposed to be together, but a last-second revision calls for them to be separated—but the interplay between Damon and Blunt doesn’t suggest that fate or a cosmic plan or powerful individual will (the screenplay stresses, in a clearly-delineated but unsatisfying way, the importance of all of those elements) is in any way important to their relationship.
Not that they don’t try. I don’t know if enough hard work can create that magical thing known as chemistry between an actor and an actress, but Damon and Blunt fearlessly wade into the fray as if it can. Their reactions to each in their initial meetings are polished to the point that believable acting and genuine chemistry start to become indistinguishable.
I’m not sure Damon, as much as he brings to every role, is necessarily a good choice for a romantic lead. Much of his intensity is inward—even when he’s acting out he’s drawing you into himself. That tends to have a negating influence on his love interest. Here, it’s crucial that Blunt’s character has at least equal stakes, if not equal presence, with Damon’s. Blunt is game during the initial flirtation, but she fades as the contest between Damon and the supernatural agents takes over. By the climactic episode when she herself is confronted with the Bureau and the lovers must run together towards their fate, she is reduced to a look of confusion and a firm grip on Damon’s arm.
All of that said, Damon almost makes the movie worth watching by himself. He entertains in countless ways—verbally, he retains a naturalistic jokiness which gently nudges the limits of the movie frame without piercing it, and his timing is impeccable. The moments in the film when he listens to, sorts out, and analyzes the advice he’s been given by the Bureau, before deciding to trash it and go his own way, briefly hold the weight of consequence due almost solely to his performance, before the rest of the screenplay fails and makes you realize not much of consequence is actually happening. Physically Damon is almost frighteningly charged-up, a dynamo in a compact frame who’s ready to go off. And it’s not just the Bourne movies which make me think this—I noticed the quality as early as his role as a prep-school bully in School Ties. The only actor of his generation who does as much with his physical performance is Christian Bale, and I think I prefer Damon’s charged battery to Bale’s live wire.
Damon has five movies slated for release in 2011. In all of his interviews he consistently displays ambition about becoming as good an actor as he can be, and making movies as good as they can be. (He also occasionally has really funny riffs on non-movie industry issues). He definitely does not seem to be in this racket for the money and the skanks (a reproving glance in your direction, Mr. Sheen). He might be becoming my favorite actor of this generation. Here’s hoping he ages well.