The Adjustment Bureau
Director : George Nolfi
Screenplay : George Nolfi (based on the story “Adjustment Team” by Philip K. Dick)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Matt Damon (David Norris), Emily Blunt (Elise Sellas), Anthony Mackie (Harry), John Slattery (Richardson), Michael Kelly (Charlie Traynor), Terence Stamp (Thompson)
Based on a 1954 short story by the prolific science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whose works have provided the basis for more than a dozen films since the early 1980s--some quite good (1982’s Blade Runner, 2002’s Minority Report), some quite bad (2001’s Impostor, 2003’s Paycheck)--The Adjustment Bureau plays out like a long-form episode of The Twilight Zone. The is usually bad news, but it works for this film because writer/director George Nolfi borrows the fantastical concept from Dick’s story and nothing else, instead creating his own central narrative as a means of dipping into some heady issues (fate, free will, the relationship between humankind and its creator) while remaining in a fundamental mode of popcorn-munching entertainment.
The film’s protagonist is David Norris (Matt Damon), a youthful, dynamic, but slightly reckless New York state representative who is running for a seat in the U.S. Senate. His otherwise successful campaign is derailed in untimely fashion by a blunder that is covered with full-spread emphasis in The New York Post, and right before he is going to deliver his canned consolation speech, he meets a woman named Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) in, of all places, a hotel men’s room (he’s in there practicing his speech and she’s hiding in one of the stalls trying to evade hotel security because she crashed a wedding upstairs). There is immediate chemistry between the two of them, and their brief interaction inspires David to throw out his canned speech and talk to his supporters directly from the heart, which means revealing the inner machinations of the political machine of which he is a part. This wins him all new credibility and marks him as an immediate frontrunner for the next election.
David, however, can’t quite get over his meeting with Elise, and when he happens to run into her on a city bus, it seems like fate that something should happen between them. Unbeknownst to David (and most of the world’s population, for that matter), fate is a stacked deck. It turns out that there is a secret organization of beings who look like ordinary men, but are in fact supernatural entities whose job is to ensure that a “Plan” preordained by the universe’s Creator is followed exactly. Wearing trench-coats and ’50s-era fedoras, they move amongst us much like the angels in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), but with the goal of “nudging” or “adjusting” us from time to time to make sure that we are on the right track (sometimes this involves causing a spilled cup of coffee, other times it involves literally freezing time and altering people’s minds). David doesn’t realize that his budding romance with Elise is not part of the Plan, and the adjustment men are forced to make themselves known to him. The entity primarily responsible for David is a sympathetic soul named Harry (well-played by Anthony Mackie), who does not seem nearly as invested in making sure David sticks to the “Plan” as his immediate superior, Richardson (John Slattery). When they are unable to convince David that he must forego romantic pursuits with Elise because it will jeopardize both of their preordained paths in life (he to become President, she to become a world-class ballet star), the adjustment bureau calls in Thompson (the ever-reliable Terence Stamp), a veteran agent who is much more direct in his dealings.
Despite all the action and running around that was so central in the film’s trailer, the crux of The Adjustment Bureau is actually old-fashioned romance built around the age-old question of whether true lovers are “meant” to be together. The film is coy about the details of its premise, which is smart since it allows everyone to read into it what he or she wants to (Harry notes that he and the others could be thought of as “angels” and the Creator could easily be God, although they could just as easily all be aliens with humankind being their giant science project). Nolfi, who is making his directorial debut after penning such high-profile projects as Ocean’s Twelve (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), offers an intriguing scenario in which romance is a construction of the Creator that can nevertheless slip out of his or her control; the idea is that human love essentially transcends any imposed plan, which we see in David as he fights against the adjustment bureau in the dim hope that he and Elise will live happily ever after.
It’s certainly a mushy concept in and of itself, but placed within the film’s sci-fi trappings, it takes on an edge that sharpens, rather than undercuts, the romanticism. It helps that Damon and Blunt have excellent on-screen chemistry, which is crucial since they spent a significant portion of the film separated. You truly want them to find a way to get back together when they’re apart, and the fact that they have nothing less as an obstacle than their very Creator certainly adds an intriguing twist on an otherwise familiar, boy-finds-girl-boy-loses-girl romantic narrative.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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