Friday, March 4, 2011

Adjusted: The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau is not your ordinary mess of a movie. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, the plot deals with material pretty familiar from much of science-fiction. It delves into the idea of fate versus free will and whether or not our destiny is our own. But what looked from the trailers to be your typical paranoid thriller turns out to be essentially a romantic story. But the many styles at work in this film ultimately cancels the movie out. The Adjustment Bureau is too busy adjusting itself.

Matt Damon plays David Norris, a young rising star running for the Senate in New York, who keeps finding ways to mess up his career ambitions. On the night he loses the election, he happens upon Elise (Emily Blunt) in the men's room (hiding from security) while he's practicing his concession speech. Within seconds, he believes he's met the love of his life. Unfortunately, their brief tryst is interrupted by aides whisking him to the podium. But one day, he meets Elise again on a bus heading to work and he seeks to hook up with her. The problem however is that he soon encounters a bureau of men dressed in fedoras who work for "the Chairman." These dapper business folks zap people's memories to keep them on their destined path in life. Apparently, Norris and Elise were never supposed to meet again after that first encounter. The rest of the film features David trying to outwit the Bureau while the fedora brigade keeps trying to throw roadblocks in his path.

Matt Damon and Emily Blunt
Writer and director George Nolfi (who co-wrote the final Bourne film) certainly provides a lighter romantic tone than one expects from this kind of material. But he can't develop anything substantial from it because it's built to choke off the very thing that keeps the movie interesting: It continually keeps its two stars apart. As it is, the story barely adds up. You're always left wondering why they just don't let him have the girl. What great destiny awaits them anyway besides big career moves? How is that ever a solid guarantee for a lifetime of bliss? Care to consider Charlie Sheen? Yet Damon and Blunt do manage to provide some lively romantic interplay despite the movie's efforts in tearing them apart. There's a casual spontaneity in their rapport that is truly engaging. In many ways, The Adjustment Bureau is a better version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) which also tried to get at the lingering regrets in romantic loss. But that film, with its labyrinth script, swallowed its conceits and laid bare a horribly sentimental story without giving us any clue as to what that couple ever meant to each other. Damon and Blunt, on the other hand, give this movie a core of romantic possibility. But that's about all it gets to achieve.

Matt Damon and John Slattery 
As for the Bureau staff, John Slattery (of Mad Men) brings a suave humour to his part, but he's soon dumped for Terence Stamp who doesn't. Stamp looks so bored that he could be reading from a teleprompter. Anthony Mackie, who plays the one bureau drone who helps Norris and Elise get together, has reasons for doing so which are so obvious that you can't believe why none of his colleagues haven't figured him out.

Yet even with all its faults, The Adjustment Bureau has a look and a feel that isn't totally negligible. Nolfi creates some lovely visual gags where bureau members run through office doors in buildings that magically exit into the Statue of Liberty, or Yankee Stadium. He also brings a relaxed pace to the proceedings where he never forces the action despite the numerous chases. But he can't escape the trap of the story. In a picture about the randomness of the romantic impulse, an impulse that can never be willed or controlled, it seems ridiculous to have a bunch of guys in hats running around trying to control it. (Did anyone on the set also consider why women don't rate being in the bureau?)

The Adjustment Bureau is a peculiar picture that's bound to earn superlatives because of its choice to not be any one thing. In an age when many movies seem to come out of cookie cutters, The Adjustment Bureau seems to be discovering itself right before our eyes -- even if it never really discovers itself.

 -- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) at the Revue Cinema in Toronto. He will also be facilitating a film series called Reel Politics at Ryerson University beginning on February 13th.

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