It's hardly worth planning your day, really. Unseen forces are shaping our lives in ways that only the movies understand. Two clever releases this week on DVD and Blu-ray illustrate how devious the puppetry can be.
In The Adjustment Bureau (2011), David Norris (Matt Damon) is a U.S. congressman running for the Senate. As it becomes clear that he has lost, he retires to the men's washroom to prepare his concession speech. Enter Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), a free spirit who is hiding from security after crashing a wedding. Naturally the two hit it off immediately, in the screwball-comedy tradition that requires them to argue over minor points while their eyes lock, flash and sparkle.
Since the movie is based loosely on a Philip K. Dick short story, something otherworldly is bound to happen. Sure enough, strange men in grey suits and hats are seen conferring on high ledges, consulting sentient books and messing with people's minds. It's like Dark City, in which an entire metropolis reconstituted itself every night. Drove the A-Z map-makers crazy.
Here, the supernatural trick is a series of doors scattered across New York. If you're dressed for the occasion, you can walk through a doorway at 6th Avenue and 54th Street and wind up in Yankee Stadium or at the base of the Statue of Liberty. "Sir," a worried underling says at one point in a tone usually reserved for the discovery of concealed bazookas, "he's got a hat!"
Since the grey-suited men seem intent on keeping David and Elise apart, questions arise. Who are they? Why are they doing this? Will David be able to thwart their plans? And where can we get the hats needed to activate those doors?
In the other new release, Unknown (2011), American Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) arrive in Berlin for a scientific conference. They reach the hotel, but Martin realizes he left an important briefcase at the airport. He hails a cab, which promptly drives off a bridge. Emerging from a coma after four days, and suffering from partial amnesia, Martin goes to the hotel, finds his wife and says something to the effect of: Hey, honey, didja miss me?
She says she has no idea who he is. Her husband, also named Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn), is already with her. Nobody remembers seeing Neeson's Martin, and an Internet check of his university finds that Martin Harris looks like Quinn.
This is a deliciously impenetrable mystery, and, as in similar amnesia-themed thrillers (see the Gregory Peck film Mirage), the hero has to find people willing to believe that he's not crazy. The cabbie who drove him off the bridge might be willing to give him a break. So might the quasi-detective Ernst Jürgen (a deft turn by Bruno Ganz), formerly with the East German secret police.
But the joy of such films is that you don't know whom to trust, and you don't know how or why the universe has conspired to treat our hero as an interloper. The biggest question is whether the movie will have a satisfying resolution. The emphatic answer is yes, although not until our hero has engaged in a hair-raising car chase. Also, as in Frantic, Roman Polanski's thriller about a husband whom no one believes, there's a scramble across a sloped rooftop.
But don't expect grey-suited men on the ledge. Even unseen forces respect jurisdictional boundaries.
ALSO NEW THIS WEEK
Happythankyoumoreplease (2010) Josh Radnor, who plays rumpled singleton Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother, directs, writes and stars in this pleasant coming-of-age comedy-drama as rumpled singleton Sam Wexler, a stunted, commitment-shy writer on the cusp of 30 in New York. Subplots range from the highs of Malin Akerman's performance as Sam's best friend Annie to the doldrums of a couple's dispute about whether to move to Los Angeles. Radnor offers an engaging optional commentary.
The Romantic Englishwoman (1975) This is a slow, slow drama. A jealous, controlling writer (Michael Caine) imagines that his dissatisfied wife (Glenda Jackson) has had a torrid affair on a trip to Baden-Baden. He invites the suspected culprit, a drug smuggler and gigolo (Helmut Berger), to stay with them for a while. And, um, that's pretty much it, until a last-act plot development involving Michel Lonsdale. Tom Stoppard contributed to the screenplay and Joseph Losey directed. The sound on the Kino Blu-ray (the film is also on DVD) is harsh when characters speak loudly.
Cedar Rapids (2011) Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), a painfully unworldly insurance salesman at a sales convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is befriended by a streetwise buffoon with a foul mouth and a heart of gold (John C. Reilly), a wife who cheats at conferences (Anne Heche) and a fan of The Wire (Isiah Whitlock Jr., who starred in The Wire). The camaraderie is enjoyable, but Lippe's over-the-top puerility rings false at several points. The journey takes a tonally dark detour out of Something Wild near the end, before veering back to the light.