Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (**)

Produced, Written and Directed by George Nolfi


Somewhere within
The Adjustment Bureau is a very compelling romance, and even better, a wonderful farce. Furthermore, the film stirs serious moral questions about predestination and existentialism. These three aspects (the romance, the farce, the existentialism) are the most interesting parts of the film, but it never really divulges into any of the three too far or deep. They're left twisting in the wind while we're sucked into a more generic plot line involving a cat-and-mouse chase between chess pieces and the chess players. In this case, the pieces are the human race and the players are the Adjustment Bureau.

David Norris (Matt Damon) is a hot-shot politician running for Senate in New York. After losing the race, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt) in the men's room. Why is she in the Men's room? She says that she's hiding from a group of security guards that were supervising a wedding that she just crashed. In actuality, she was arranged to be there. She was meant to meet David, have a tender conversation with him, and inspire him to make a rousing speech that would spring board his political career toward the White House. Who arranged this? Unseen men who create the plan to David's (and everyone's) life. And it's important that David (and everyone) stay on the right track.

But David is not interested in the plan. He's interested in Elise. When he sees her again on a public bus, he makes sure to get her number. This is when the Adjustment Bureau steps in. A group of men in hats explain to David: he was supposed to meet Elise in the bathroom, but he is not meant to see her again. Any prolonged relationship that they have will have serious consequences on their plan, and change the course of their lives irreparably. These men can walk in and out of doors that seem to break natural physics laws and can always keep their eyes on him. If David dismisses them, they'll erase his brain. That there is room for tinkering in a system that's
supposed to be run by a larger-than-life being seems strange. Everyone's life has already been written, but when the Adjustment Bureau tells David that he must never see Elise again, aren't they suggesting the possibility of free will?

Small questions like this bothered me throughout. Not because they felt like holes, mind you, but because the film takes itself so seriously that it made me begin to question the logic behind an idea that is inherently illogical. It makes a lot of sense that this film is based on a Philip K. Dick short story. Dick never focused on the wonder of the outer worlds he created, but the horror, and
The Adjustment Bureau has some underlying questions poking mercilessly at the afterlife and the "higher power". One of the adjusters, Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie), openly questions The Chairmen - the ominous name given to the one who runs the Bureau - in a way that feels suspiciously like Loki questioning God for his delusions of grandeur. But director/screenwriter George Nolfi doesn't have enough interest in really upsetting anybody, and instead this question about the man upstairs becomes a red herring for the plot.

Which leads into another issue I saw. The adjusters, all equipped with trench coats and fedoras, are put into positions that are so preposterous that I feel that their very existence was prime material for a farce, a satire about predestination. But Harry is morose and questioning what it all means, while other adjusters, like Richardson (John Slattery), are despondent, not willing to challenge the system because they know that the towel has already been thrown. Then there's the appearance of Thompson (Terrence Stamp), a higher official who's brought in when David's constant search for Elise becomes out of control. Stamp is a terrific actor with virtuoso abilities, but he plays Thompson with such strict seriousness that it's almost hard not to laugh at how hard he's trying. That Nolfi is unwilling to make these adjusters a damning metaphor, nor make them exploit their comedic potential, is unfortunate.

There are some elements here that work. Almost all of them have to do with the combination of Damon and Blunt. They have wonderful chemistry, which makes you root for them. It's an interesting occurrence when you care for the racers while hating the race, but that's a testament to how good Damon and Blunt are together. In a less high concept screenplay, their natural connection could really be the basis for a love story that is very effective. Not that the love story in
The Adjustment Bureau isn't, but the obstacles that they face become distracting. Their tale feels like it's above running in and out of doors that lead to Yankees Stadium and The Statue of Liberty.

Trying to adapt Philip K. Dick to the big screen can be hard.
Blade Runner didn't work till it's director's cut was released, and outside of Minority Report, there wasn't another adaptation that really clicked (Total Recall works, but for other reasons, mostly having to do with Ah-nuld). That a movie studio would even attempt a cerebral sci-fi is commendable, but Dick's vision of the Adjusters is a lot more challenging toward a stubborn inland sensibility. The Adjustment Bureau is too tame, too happy to settle for being a thriller rather than raising questions amongst its viewers. It does have some fantastic work from its two lead performers, which may be all that most audiences will have wished for. I would have liked to see a little more balls.

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