Quick, what’s the oddest thing about Matt Damon’s career? The obvious answer is that he has played a lot of oddballs. The drug-addled Gulf War veteran of Courage Under Fire (a role for which he lost 40 pounds — and he wasn’t exactly chunky beforehand). The troubled megamind of Good Will Hunting. The moody parasite-sociopath of The Talented Mr. Ripley. The amnesiac ex-government fighting-and-killing machine of the Bourne films. The lost-inside-himself CIA cipher of The Good Shepherd. The whistleblower-without-a-twinge-of-idealism in The Informant! The melancholy psychic of Hereafter. No question about it: For an actor who has long resembled a clean, upstanding, gleaming-white-toothed Boy Scout, and who now looks like a slightly older Boy Scout, Matt Damon has spent a long time going out of his way to cast himself against type.
But that’s still not the oddest thing about his career. That would be the fact that, in nearly 15 years as a major movie star (I’m dating his leap to leading man status from the explosive success of Good Will Hunting), Matt Damon has never starred in a romantic comedy. Not once. He has never tried to lighten his image, or rebound after a box-office failure, or simply play the game by agreeing to do some fluffy-sexy chick flick in which he plays a carefree executive bachelor who flirts with, gets taken down a peg by, and falls for Julia/Sandra/Jennifer/Kate/ Renée/Drew/etc.
The desire to steer clear of those kinds of movies has been an almost ideological decision on Damon’s part, and for anyone who follows him, it’s a choice with a ready explanation: Chick flicks are Hollywood at its most cheesy, formulaic, corporate, and even embarrassing — for the most part, they’re happy-face gobs of product masquerading as movies — and Matt Damon is not a cheesy guy, and not a formulaic or corporate actor either. He doesn’t make movies he doesn’t believe in. That’s why he’s virtually the only actor of his generation who was able to become an action star and hold fast to his integrity while doing it. The Bourne films aren’t quite works of art, but they’re super-smart about exciting audiences. They’re thrill rides with a vision.
That said, Damon’s choice to steer clear of the whole RomCom Industrial Complex has had a profound impact on his screen image. Simply put: You don’t think of him in a romantic way. A number of the films I listed above have involved him in romantic subplots, yet when I call up the image of a Matt Damon movie, I almost always envision him alone, intense and hyper-aware and a bit cut off, grappling with whatever dilemma is buzzing around in his busy, obsessively centered head. Damon is peerless at this sort of thing (his single greatest role to date may be Tom Ripley, whom he embodied with such scary and bravura cunning). Yet there’s a real paradox to the fact that he has played so many disturbed solipsistic troubleshooters — and it’s not just that he still looks like a shining all-American jock. I’ve had the occasion to meet and talk with Damon a handful of times (going back to before he was a star), and I can testify that he’s one of the brightest, funniest, most down-to-earth and friendly people who has ever worked in this business. I believe — though I can’t prove — that his evolution as an artist, his whole attraction to playing furtive and gimlet-eyed anti-social types, emerges from his perception that if he acted as accessible and friendly on-screen as he is in real life, he might risk looking like a bland actor. To be taken seriously, and to do interesting work, he almost had to become the anti-Boy Scout.
And that makes The Adjustment Bureau, Damon’s ominous-on-the-outside, heartwarming-on-the-inside sci-fi romantic mindbender, a fascinating new wrinkle in his career. The picture, which is based on a 1954 short story by Philip K. Dick (not exactly the first author you think of adapting of when you’re trying to make a date movie), sat on the shelf for a while, which lowered industry and media expectations for it, which meant that its $20 million opening weekend registered as a surprise success. But I think that something more interesting was also going on. Since The Adjustment Bureau mashes together several genres at once (it’s dreamy-druggy metaphysical sci-fi…and a violently paranoid Philip K. Dick fantasy about scary men in dark suits who control the world…and a Sliding Doors love story about yearning and fate and connection and The Moment that can change everything), no one, before it came out, knew quite what to make of it. But the movie’s release, and initial (moderate) hit status, clarified things: It’s an offbeat romance for adults. Which means, bottom line, that it’s a movie people will turn out for to see Matt Damon and Emily Blunt fall in love.
Reviewing The Adjustment Bureau last week, I kept trying to think of a Damon/Blunt variation on the old quip (by Katharine Hepburn) that famously explained the chemistry of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: “She gives him sex, he gives her class.” I wasn’t able to think of anything quippy, so I dropped it, but here, prosaically, is what I would say now: In the charming, extended scene in which the two meet (in a hotel men’s room), Emily Blunt, a magnificent flirt, gives Damon a certain randy spontaneity, and he grounds her lofty British sauciness. I actually enjoyed Damon’s quiet romance with Cécile de France in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, but The Adjustment Bureau marks the first time in a long time — maybe ever? — where Damon and his costar communicate the kind of crackling livewire attraction that makes an audience perk right up. We’re so unused to real sparks (as opposed to the damp sparklers set off by the average chick flick) that in this case those sparks light up the theater.The two look very good doing so.
But what, if anything, does this do for Damon’s image? Does it shift it, deepen it, evolve it? Will it adjust his future as a movie star? That’s up to him. What I would say is that he now has a chance to make his romantic side more central, and that it might be the single freshest thing he could do to finally star in — yes — a romantic comedy. Don’t get me wrong, though. I don’t want to see him, you know, team up with director Garry Marshall to play a wisecracking financial hotshot in Stock Exchange, costarring Kate Hudson as the broker girlfriend and Rachel McAdams as the cable-TV money analyst (“Because this is one Wall Street player who’s putting his default…into a new kind of swap!”). No, I’d like to see Matt Damon use his taste for the adventurous to shepherd, and star in, a good romantic comedy, one that took off from the lightness he showed on 30 Rock. The kind that wouldn’t make us — or him — cringe. The kind that might even reinvent the form.
So would you like to see Damon take a break from playing misfits, loners, and spooked assassins? Can you envision him, fundamentally, as a romantic star? If so, who would you like to see him paired with? Or is he doing just fine as is?