Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

This post originally appeared online at MediaBlvd Magazine.

George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau, based on Philip K. Dick’s short story The Adjustment Team, is a bit of an awkward thriller.  At times it veers toward the comic, is occasionally sweepingly romantic, and probably aspires to be a cerebral suspense film, but never quite rallies for any of the various genres it hints at.  In the movie, Matt Damon plays Senate hopeful David Norris, who meets the woman of his dreams, but is kept from her by a mysterious group of metaphysical beings who swear him to secrecy about the whole situation, and demand that he never see this amazing woman again.
The advertising makes it seem as though it is David’s encounters with Elise (Emily Blunt) that steer him off the course of normal life, but instead it is a chance glitch in the Matrix (or whatever this movie wants to call it) that allows him to see the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Adjustment Bureau, dapper men who adjust the course of fate for humans.  Having witnessed the Bureau at work, David is offered an ultimatum: keep their existence a secret, and don’t try to interfere with their plans, or face a de facto lobotomy.  It’s a wild premise that David accepts nearly instantly, perhaps signaling to the audience that we should be quiet and just accept it too, which doesn’t quite do it for me.

When David meets Elise, she initially comes off as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, providing a quirky, romantic counterpart to David’s role as a highly choreographed politician.  Mercifully, the situation reveals itself to be a bit more complicated than that, as David does in fact have a history of acting impulsively (a common trait of the MPDG), and Elise herself is a dancer, and her talents and ambitions become central to the stakes of a decision David must make about whether or not to pursue her.  She comes into his life and offers herself as the chance to define his future, but he plays the same role in hers.  It’s a refreshing change, and I admit that one of the most exciting things about the movie was seeing the roles reversed, where it is the man who must choose between greatness and love.

Matt Damon’s performance makes it clear that no one should be surprised when he decides to run for office in earnest one day.  (On an unrelated note, he looks about 15 years younger than he did in Hereafter.)  Emily Blunt is underused in a role that probably could have been well-served by any number of actresses out there.  I could have sworn that Terence Stamp was Frank Langella for some reason, and Anthony Mackie does well in an against-type role.  John Slattery, on the other hand, should probably talk to his agent about getting typecast as a handsome man who wears a suit well.  Speaking of suits, there is a great moment when a hat flies off in the midst of a chase, and the characters urgently stop to chase the hat before carrying on.  The reasoning for this is explained later in the film, but it made me laugh out loud when it happened.

The Adjustment Bureau deals with seriously heavy philosophy without really giving it enough time to sink in.  The being in charge of the Bureau is called The Chairman, but humans “use many other names,” so we can conclude that this is a universe in which a monotheistic deity rules, and occasionally chooses to let human beings have free will.  But despite all of this control, the deity is often powerless to “pure chance,” and seems to suffer from a lot of institutional flaws getting in the way of things.  I guess I shouldn’t really be expecting a big theology examination from this movie, but a lot of issues are just dropped on us without really being examined, which irked.  The romance between David and Elise is enjoyable to watch, and the rainy scenery of New York is beautiful, but otherwise the movie awkwardly struggles to balance plot points and genres, which is a bit of a letdown.

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