The Adjustment Bureau (2011) / Thriller-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image
Running time: 105 min.
Cast: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, John Slattery, Anthony Mackie, Terence Stamp, Michael Kelly
Cameo: Jon Stewart, Chuck Scarborough, James Carville, Mary Matalin, Michael Bloomberg, Jesse Jackson, Wolf Blitzer, Terry McAuliffe, Madeleine Albright
Director: George Nolfi
Screenplay: George Nolfi (based on the short story, "Adjustment Team", by Philip K. Dick)
Review published March 6, 2011
The Adjustment Bureau is the latest Hollywood adaptation of a Philip K. Dick work, this time of one of his short stories, "Adjustment Team" (one presumes the title was changed to 'Bureau' to make the titular organization sound more ominously official). Like most Dick adaptations, it's very loose, as his original story has no romance (or even a key female lead), doors, hats, or even any traditional thrills. As Dick flicks go, it's about the middle of the pack, a far cry from Blade Runner, and definitely not as effective as Minority Report or Total Recall. The key to adapting his vision well is that it takes a visionary director to corral Dick's visionary text, and George Nolfi, a screenwriter (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Sentinel) attempting direction for the first time with this film, just doesn't have that visionary style to pull off great things.
Matt Damon (True Grit, Ocean's Thirteen) stars as up-and-coming New York congressman David Norris, whom we see at the beginning of the film mounting a formidable, but ultimately failed, run to become the state's youngest U.S. Senator. On election night, as Norris takes a moment of solitude to prepare his concession speech, he finds his life might be forever changed when he discovers he isn't alone in the Waldorf Astoria restroom -- there is a woman there with him (Blunt, The Wolfman), and there's an instant attraction that can't be denied. They share a kiss, but a fleeting one, and the two leave each other not knowing if they will see each other again.
But there are others watching this exchange who know, the mysterious unit known as the Adjustment Bureau, who exist mostly out of sight of ordinary folk to make sure that the 'grand design' for humanity happens just as it is fated by the unseen "Chairman". And that Chairman has designed that David never see this woman again, and the Adjustment Bureau is around to make sure of it.
Suspension of disbelief is as vital a component as any when it comes to metaphysical sci-fi thrillers, and Nolfi can't pull it off. Starting with the "Adjustment Bureau" themselves, the crew just looks too silly engaging with each other covertly, all clad with hats and stoic aloofness. One wonders if the so-called Chairman isn't in fact the 'Chairman of the Board', aka Sinatra, with their retro-1960s Brat Pack fedora/trenchcoat vibe. For an ultra-top secret unit -- one whose existence has been secret for centuries, if not millennia -- they sure seem to make themselves known to Norris, and in a big way, not only divulging their preposterous intentions, but also how they operate, as well as their kryptonite (their powers don't seem to work around water).
Had Nolfi played the film with tongue planted firmly in cheek, perhaps the film wouldn't nearly be undone whenever the plot kicks into progressively higher gears. By taking his plot with straightforward seriousness, the story can't elevate out of its inherent silliness, either as an ill-fated romance, or as crackerjack science fiction. Nolfi's biggest transgression is trying to please two crowds at once -- those who enjoy groundbreaking philosophical sci-fi puzzlers like Inception, and those who enjoy popcorn movies full of fun chase scenes and cheeky romance. Independent of each other, both appear to have possibilities, but as a combination of the two, the narrative structure becomes wildly uneven, as the romance is given too short a shrift to take permanent root, while the metaphysical alchemy underneath the premise doesn't have any defined rules for audiences to follow except that which is made up for plot convenience.
If this sounds like a negative review, it isn't meant to be, as it entertains enough in most respects, even through the sometimes snicker-worthy story devices. The Adjustment Bureau manages to keep its head above water, just barely, thanks to the quality of the actors, particularly Damon and Blunt as the would-be lovers. If we don't believe in their attraction, the entire film is a wash, as it remains the sole rooting interest as to whether the duo can defy Fate and live and love under the guise of Free Will. And yet, one can't help but feel that such interesting concepts deserve a better vehicle than Nolfi delivers. As the twisty finale executes, we watch a fleet chase through various doorways, each opening to a different picturesque, easily identifiable, romantic New York locale. Instead of the breathtaking whirlwind Nolfi strives for, it's never much more than mildly interesting.
Other points scored are mostly window dressing, such as the way Nolfi gives the film early momentum through the Senatorial race montage and the subsequent nicely poignant concession speech that results. The meet-cute between George and Elise (we don't find out her name until later in the film) is given perhaps the longest scene in the film, allowing the two to have a full leisurely conversation that is rare for films of this ilk to indulge in. And they do share a chemistry together, despite little courtship and she's painted as little more than trophy girlfriend material (Blunt's nuance makes her appear more than that, thankfully), and the obvious age difference that makes the aspect that their fates had been determined from the 1970s ring curious. Damon and Blunt are 40 and 28, respectively, though the film suggests they are contemporaries. A document later in the film states Elise was born in 1977, making her 33, which David would have to be in order to beat then 34-year-old Rufus King as NY's youngest ever U.S. Senator.
The worth of a film like The Adjustment Bureau can be measured almost wholly by one's desire to watch the film again just after viewing it. Star-crossed love stories like Titanic and Ghost sold their second tickets even easier than their first, so a film where two attractive and charismatic leads must race, almost literally, against fate to find love should make anyone with a romantic inkling's heart flutter. Meanwhile, science fiction fanatics just as certainly rewatched mind-benders like The Matrix and Inception, and often engage in deep philosophical exchanges with one another online and in person to discuss not only the movie, but the erudite themes on reality, fantasy and perception that develop underneath the entertainment surface. In both cases, The Adjustment Bureau can only muster enough entertainment for the here and now, transcendent neither in love nor in intellect, more content to appease than to inspire.
©2011 Vince Leo