March 02, 2011

Adjustment Bureau, The

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Adjustment Bureau, The

ROMANCE/SCIENCE FICTION:

United States, 2011

U.S. Release Date:

2011-03-04

Running Length:

1:42

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Profanity, Sexual Content)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Terence Stamp, Michael Kelly

Director:

George Nolfi

Screenplay:

George Nolfi, based on the short story "Adjustment Team" by Philip K. Dick

Cinematography:

John Toll

Music:

Thomas Newman

U.S. Distributor:

Universal Pictures

Subtitles:

none


Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Adjustment Bureau is that, irrespective of the misdirection of the trailers and T.V. spots, this is more of a romance than a science fiction thriller. That's not to say the Twilight Zone aspects of the movie are ignored or reduced to background color - they are generally well established and pass cursory scrutiny - but The Adjustment Bureau is more about an emotional response than a logical one. It's about love conquering all. It's about people risking everything for a chance at romantic joy. One doesn't get that from the marketing and, as a result, I suspect a key segment of the potential audience won't know what they're missing.

The premise comes from a 57-year old short story by Philip K. Dick that appeared in Orbit Science Fiction. Writer/director George Nolfi has not attempted to be faithful to Dick's text (although the author's daughter, Isa Dick Hackett, served as an executive producer), but he has retained the basic framework: humanity's "path" is under constant observation and occasionally needs to be "adjusted" by the observers. Some call them "angels." They prefer to be known as "case workers." For the most part, they can do their work without being noticed but, every once in a while, they mis-time something and get caught in the act. The Adjustment Bureau is about one such instance.

David Norris (Matt Damon) is an up-and-coming politician running for a U.S. Senate seat from the state of New York. He's young and brash and, when his past catches up with him, he loses the election. He meets Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) in his darkest hour, when he's preparing to give his conciliation speech. She inspires him but, like Cinderella, she vanishes without giving her name and he doesn't even have a glass slipper to fit to her feet. Three years later, on the morning when chance brings David and Elise back together, he learns of the existence of The Adjustment Bureau. After recognizing that they have been observed, they capture David. The situation is explained to him and he is allowed to go free, but with two provisos: (1) He cannot tell anyone about the existence of The Adjustment Bureau - to do so would make him immediately subject to "resetting" (lobotomization), and (2) He cannot ever again see Elise. From that point, his life becomes an ongoing struggle to circumvent the obstacles placed in his path and be with Elise. The more successful he becomes, the more seriously his threat is regarded by The Adjustment Bureau, and eventually they bring in Thompson (Terence Stamp), "The Hammer," to resolve the situation.

It's not unusual for movies with murky, intriguing backstories to begin strong then go off the rails. That's often because the resolution can't live up to the build-up. Fortunately, although there is a marked downturn in The Adjustment Bureau during its final 15-20 minutes, things don't completely fall apart. There's a little too much gratuitous action (it's not needed - action fans will already be asleep by this point, anyway) and the "love conquers all" theme is hammered home with more zeal than is necessary. Nevertheless, although the final act may not be as intellectually fulfilling as what precedes it, it is emotionally satisfying. Viewers may come to the movie because of its sci-fi premise, but most will stay because of the love story.

Matt Damon has quietly become one of his generation's most versatile actors - he's more than the one-trick pony he was once pigeonholed to be. He can succeed in comedy, action, and drama. Here, he's more Dick Tracy than Jason Bourne, trying to follow clues and find his true love while outwitting adversaries with superhero-like powers. This isn't a signature role for Damon, but he won't be ashamed to have it on his resume. Emily Blunt is a good match for Damon (although one could argue she's probably a good match for any actor); their chemistry goes a long way toward keeping the focus on the characters rather than on the mechanics of the story. As members of The Adjustment Bureau, John Slattery and Terence Stamp get to chew on some meaty lines of dialogue and both seem like they've walked out of a black-and-white '40s movie and into this one. (Maybe it's the hats.)

This is Nolfi's directorial debut (although he has several screenwriting and co-screenwriting credits to his name, including The Bourne Ultimatum) and he handles it with skill. Some of the film's visual flair can be credited to veteran cinematographer John Toll, but The Adjustment Bureau manages to be visually arresting without calling too much attention to itself. The production finds the right emotional pitch and maintains it. The story toys with the concepts of free will and predestination - an argument that has befuddled religious scholars through the ages - but the filmmakers are believers in true love and, as a testimony to that philosophy, this movie needs no adjustment.

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