As Reality Turns: Unknown and The Adjustment Bureau

by March 9, 2011 at 1:07 pm 1,273 0

Mary Burgan Borderstan Movie Fan

Mary Burgan is the Borderstan Movie Fan.

From Mary Burgan

There is a type of movie that I think of as male soap opera. There have to be car chases, fabulous crashes, and explosions in these films. Apocalypse usually has to threaten, and there has to be a girlfriend who doesn’t understand the danger — unless she is secretly in league with the evil forces.

And in recent years all the action has had to involve an alternate reality that the hero is trying to understand or save the world from. That alternate reality labels the film “serious.”

I named this category years ago when I went to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) at a Cineplex in a Midwest campus town and noticed all the guys being fully satisfied when the blond scientist falls into the void, though Harrison Ford has tried to keep hold of her  hand. As we walked out, the guys were in a state of ultimate enjoyment while their female dates seemed bemused rather than entertained.

Some of my Women’s Studies students told me later that when they went to the movies with their boyfriends, it was the guy who got to choose the film. The men would never agree to see a “chick flick” like one of the Jane Austen remakes. Is this still the case? If so, let me know.  It would make an interesting discussion.

I’ve just seen two of these male soap operas — Unknown and The Adjustment Bureau. I have to admit that each starts out well as a thriller, posing puzzlers about what has happened to the hero’s girlfriend or wife. Villains intervene, with inventive car and/or street chases — one set in Berlin and the other in New York, and deepening mystery about what the hell is going on.

Liam Neeson is the hero in Unknown and Matt Damon in The Adjustment Bureau. Each plays innocent confusion well, and each is able to mix it up credibly with villains — though in doing so, each displays amazing endurance as runner or punching bag. Neeeson and Damon are admirable actors in other kinds of movies, and their talent shows at the beginning of these films, though Neeson takes enough knees to the groin and socks to the head to make a girl wonder if  flesh can really be that resilient.

Neeson’s character is at a disadvantage because he is paired with January Jones, an actress from T.V. who seems to have just stepped out of a role as a “Stepford wife” and not gotten out of character yet. Damon is more evenly paired with the wonderful Emily Blunt as his true love, and she almost steals the film from him. The other characters in each thriller, both helpers and villains, are fine as they walk through their roles. The big problem is the story itself.

If a movie is going to pose an alternate reality, it needs to resolve the hero’s dilemma in dealing with such reality in a way that does not leave too many loose threads. It all needs to fall into place at the end, so that the audience retains some respect for the action they’ve just been subjected to.

If the mystery derives from the inner psychological state of the hero, like amnesia, that complication can’t stretch beyond the limits of belief, and the resolution needs to place the protagonist in a believable version of  normal life.

If the mystery involves a world mysteriously at odds with commonsense reality, its metaphysics have to portray something beyond wish-fulfillment in the final reconciliation of the hero and his love. Actually, love doesn’t conquer all, especially if the audience is asked to suspend disbelief in an unseen world that tinkers with everything in the seen one — including love. All the elaborate build-up should add up to more than that.

But then male soap operas, like chick flicks, can be entertaining. That is, if you can afford to waste a little time for a few thrills and a bit of romance.


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