By Dave Wilson | March 4, 2011
Director: George Nolfi
Writers: George Nolfi (screenplay), Philip K. Dick (short story “Adjustment Team”)
Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, John Slattery, Anthony Mackie, Terence Stamp
The Adjustment Bureau, adapted from a 1954 pulp story by Philip K. Dick, has a clever enough premise. You and I might very well go about our lives making our own choices, sipping coffee, turning corners, and catching the bus at the last minute. But what if there was a mysterious organization of supernatural operatives forever shadowing us, constantly intervening, making small adjustments, and keeping us on track so that the big plan proceeds as preordained? And what if we threw the whole rig off track, stubbornly insisting on our own free will?
Golly, that’s a head scratcher, and one that truly could have led to a game-changing science fiction thriller that also grapples with serious philosophical questions, something along the lines of The Matrix, or that other Philip Dick-inspired vision, Blade Runner.
On the other hand, it might also make a good date movie, which seems to be more of what writer-director George Nolfi is going for in his adaptation.
Matt Damon stars as David Norris, the “GQ Congressman,” who’s also a candidate in the New York Senate race. He’s impulsive by nature, and has a knack for blowing his chances at key stages of his career. As the film opens, he’s on his way to victory, when an unseemly photo from his fraternity days turns up on the front page of The Post. Just before giving his concession speech, David has a chance encounter with a beautiful, devastatingly honest stranger named Elise (Emily Blunt), who’s hiding out in a stall in the men’s room after attempting to crash a wedding. The two have an instant spark; a flirtation arises that seems to promise genuine connection. They’re saying things to each other they really don’t say to anyone else. And then they lose track of each other forever.
Or they would have, if, several months later, Harry (Anthony Mackie), an Adjustment Agent with a conscience, had successfully arranged for David to splatter his coffee and miss his morning bus. But David makes his bus on time, and lo and behold, in a city of 1.6 million people, not only does he find Elise sitting there, ready to pick up where they left off, but he arrives at work early enough to catch that shadowy crew of dark suited operatives making a somewhat more significant adjustment. Think of it—all of your colleagues frozen at their desks, while men in suits and protective gear vacuum the office with lightning rods—or something. Clearly, David has seen something he shouldn’t have.
The Adjustment Bureau descends upon him, holds him captive, and bargains with him. He must never reveal his new found knowledge. He must not disrupt the plan. Sound good? Oh yeah, and he must never, ever see Elise again, because she’s not in the plan.
Well, she’s in David’s plan. He’s stubborn, he’s driven—and he’s going to keep finding her. Now a rift threatens to eat up the universe, because you can’t drive the plan off track like that….not for love.
And so the heart of this movie, all gimmicks and plot machinations aside, is really kind of a charming love story. Only instead of in-laws or ex-husbands threatening to keep this couple apart, a cabal of black-clad, corporate-types who can appear and disappear at will, and disguise themselves as beat cops or postal workers, will stop at nothing to threaten, cajole, and menace them in order to edge the whole train back on track.
Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have a great deal of chemistry here. There is a playfulness and a looseness to their banter that feels at times like something out of an old Howard Hawks film. Emily Blunt is radiant as Elise, a ballet dancer on the verge of discovery. Forget for a moment that the dancing that we actually see isn’t all that convincing. However, both she and Damon do a great job of selling the connection between these two.
So why is it that a film which contains so many enjoyable, truly clever elements ultimately feels unsatisfying?
First of all, there are major inconsistencies in the tone of the film early on that have the overall effect of deflating what could have been a more suspenseful film. I think the film tips its hat too early, crosscutting between these mysterious, but rather benign-looking corporate types keeping tabs on David, and David himself barreling through the last hours of his campaign. Instead of having us identify solely with David as he walks blindly in on this terrifying new reality, we see the bureau sizing him up, meddling, making their plans.
And let’s face it; these guys really aren’t that frightening. Now I love John Slattery as Roger Sterling on Mad Men. But now he comes in and plays Roger Sterling here, too, in his role as Richardson, a sort of middle management Adjustment Bureau agent, and it just doesn’t work. You get the casual, arrogant, wise-ass routine instead of menace, mystery, or a sense of real consequences. No wonder Matt Damon keeps doing his own thing. He has drive. He knows what he wants. But these Adjustment Bureau guys just don’t have their hearts in it. They’re not ominous or threatening or unwavering in their will. They’re nuisances more than anything else, like mosquitoes — or perhaps even magic leprechauns. Consequently, I sat back and experienced a lot of the hot pursuit with the same kind of detachment I feel when I’m watching my daughter play her Scooby Doo Nintendo game. The characters in the movie tell you there’s a lot at stake just about every chance they get, but you never really feel it.
The other issue is closely related because it also has the effect of lowering the stakes and keeping us detached. The rules of this world feel false and arbitrary. When we start looking closely at what these agents can and can’t do, or examine certain details about how they operate, too many questions pile up. These rules don’t feel grounded in internal logic, but manufactured as conveniences moments before they’re needed. I felt toyed with and strung along, as if waiting for some great big deus ex machina to come down and change the game again.
Ultimately, The Adjustment Bureau never really escapes its origins as a clever short story. Somehow it feels too light and insubstantial, clever enough to be a half-hour episode of The Twilight Zone, but not quite enough to sustain a two-hour film. To its credit, it’s a compelling yarn with a great cast—did I mention Terence Stamp? And it has enough old-fashioned charm to cruise on fumes to the finish line. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to overlook the promise of the much better film it might have been. You know, with a few adjustments.