The Adjustment Bureau (Multiple Reviews)

Joey Magidson’s Review (***½)

Despite marketing that would lead you to believe otherwise, The Adjustment Bureau is a romantic fairy tale.  Yes, there are sci-fi elements to the tale, but unlike the advertising that seeks to place this in the same ballpark as Inception, this is not an action-first picture.  It’s a love story, and an incredibly winning one at that (it’s early, but I’d almost argue that I prefer it to Christopher Nolan’s film…but only slightly so).  Writer/director George Nolfi has made one of the most successful Phillip K. Dick adaptations to date, and in doing so has crafted the rare film that is a romantic drama enhance by action and science fiction underpinnings, as opposed to a sci-fi action flick with a love story thrown in to attract a wider audience.  I applaud Nolfi for this, as the end result is a very special motion picture.  Add in a great lead performance by Matt Damon, and this is a wonderful little (yes, it’s much more intimate than you’d guess) film.

David Norris (Damon) is a fast rising Brooklyn Congressman about to be elected New York’s next Senator.  He’s young, enthusiastic, likable, and has all the makings of a future political star.  That is, until a youthful indiscretion is uncovered and he’s blown out in the election.  Norris is in a bathroom preparing his concession speech when he happens to meet Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt).  The spark is immediate and strong.  They share a lovely conversation where you can essentially feel them falling in love, then they share a kiss…and she’s off.  David is forever changed by that, and goes out and gives such a compelling and non-politician style speech that he’s immediately the front-runner for the next election.  A few years later, David is starting work at a hedge fund and preparing to announce his candidacy again when he runs into Elise.  They hit it off again, but the thing is…they weren’t supposed to meet.  A shadowy group called “The Bureau” is watching over us and making sure we follow our destinies.  David and Elise have separate destinies from each other, but a mistake by a Bureau member named Harry (Anthony Mackie) allowed them to meet again.  The Bureau sends Richardson (John Slattery) to clean up the mess, but David stumbles upon them.  They reveal that the keep the world going and that if David and Elise stay together, the consequences could be dire for the entire universe.  David originally goes along with the plan, but when he manages to meet her again, he’s convinced that he’s right and they are meant to be together.  He sets about to circumvent The Bureau and make sure he’s with Elise forever, though the odds seem to be against him and against love.

Matt Damon is excellent as David Norris, believable both as a politician and as a simple man in love.  His earnestness and likeability are through the roof.  You’re invested in his happiness, so you’re willing to follow him on this journey.  Considering that he can sell the action scenes well too, it’s a win-win situation for everybody.  Blunt makes you fall in love with her, so you can feel why David would do what he does.  Her face is incredibly emotive, and you feel so much without her having to say anything at times.  In terms of supporting roles, Mackie and Slattery are very good as the people who start out seemingly as villains before it becomes clear that they’re something far different than that.  There are also solid turns by Terence Stamp as a Bureau “fixer” and Michael Kelly as David’s best friend and campaign manager, but the obvious sell is the chemistry between Damon and Blunt.  It’s easily some of the best screen chemistry in the last year or two (arguably the best, outside of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine last year), and they elevate the film because of it.

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Writer/director Nolfi is making his directorial debut here, and it’s a promising one.  He’s confident behind the camera, and never gets in the way of the film.  In terms of writing, he’s made some major changes to Dick’s novella Adjustment Team, but I’d say that this is the superior product.  By resisting the temptation to make this simply a “chase” movie, he gives the audience something different.

When the action scenes occur, they’re high quality and kinetic, but they’re obviously not his focus.  He’s focused on the love of his main characters and their fight to be together, and in that realm, he definitely succeeds.  Aside from a bit of a third act letdown (depending on your perspective), it’s a fine piece of cinema by a filmmaker with a strong future.  Overall, The Adjustment Bureau is the rare film that places an emphasis on romance above action, while combining the two effectively.  Despite a potential complaint about the way the film wraps up (I’m still going back and forth on it, but I won’t get into it, due to spoilers), this is an excellent movie.  It wasn’t what I was expecting at all, and I’m overjoyed for that.  If you value your heart above your adrenal gland, but like both to be stimulated…this is the movie for you.

Robert Hamer’s Review (*½)

I have heard often that it is better for a film to shoot for the moon and fail than to aim low and succeed.  What, then, do we make of The Adjustment Bureau, a science fiction thriller adapted from Philip K. Dick’s short story by first-timer George Nolfi?  Is it even worse when a film takes a great idea and displays a complete lack of ambition in its execution?

How is this for a potentially fascinating premise — David Norris (Matt Damon) is a promising young politician running for Senate who, on the eve of a major defeat, meets the alluring ballerina/wedding crasher Elise (Emily Blunt) and this chance encounter motivates him to give a galvanizing concession speech, priming him for a more successful Senate run and possibly the presidency.  What a wonderful stroke of luck!  Ah, but you see, that’s what They want you to think.  They, of course, are the Adjustment Bureau, who (explains John Slattery) controls nearly every major event in human history.  Supposedly because we can’t be trusted with our own future, the “Chairman” (God?) wrote a master plan that must be followed at all costs…a plan that does not see David being with Elise.

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But blind luck and a little incompetence from his personal handler (Anthony Mackie, deserving of far more substantial roles post-Hurt Locker than as Damon’s guardian angel) pulls them together.  He realizes from only a few moments with her that they are Meant To Be Together, and thus begins a seemingly impossible struggle against omnipotent and omniscient beings for two wealthy successful white heterosexuals to Live Happily Ever After.

Did you catch that?  How quickly this creepy and potentially rich idea reduces itself into a predictable love story?  I couldn’t help but ask myself all sorts of questions about this Bureau that Nolfi was flatly uninterested in developing.  For starters, why in the world does this organization care so much about the future of humanity?  Are they angels?  Is the “Chairman” God?  If so, what does that say about religion and spirituality that the Lord’s work is essentially an incompetent bureaucracy?  Speaking of which, why were they so inept?  One would think that a being that can shape entire events and travel through portals wouldn’t fall asleep on a park bench mere minutes before needing to trigger an important event.  Such a concept could be played for laughs, which Nolfi does…except when he doesn’t.

Questions about challenging concepts in sci-fi films don’t always need to be answered.  Taking a past example, The Fountain – whatever its flaws – had the wisdom to keep many of its ambiguities unanswered.  But unlike Aronofsky’s divisive film, The Adjustment Bureau does not even have concern with these questions, opting instead to address each of its issues with a loud declaration of “Love conquers all!”  The message becomes especially annoying when a third act reveal reinforces the tired notion of successful people being empty and unfulfilled on the inside, and that the only acceptable way to live is to be part of a committed heterosexual couple.

Certainly, the performers aren’t at fault.  Matt Damon, ever the reliable leading man, shares excellent onscreen chemistry with the lovely Emily Blunt.  Blunt always has a regal, elegant presence on the screen.  It’s easy for us to believe that David would fall for her instantly (but not easy for us to believe that she would crash a wedding).  The adjusters themselves do the best they can with such a botched conceit, though many of them – particularly Slattery – seem unsure of whether to play their characters comically or with genuine menace.

But all the great performances can’t stop the essential flaw of The Adjustment Bureau: Philip K. Dick’s rich idea for a story wasted on the same fluff Hollywood tells us every year.