Running time:105 min. Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image). Director:George Nolfi Writers: George Nolfi (screenplay), Philip K. Dick (short story “Adjustment Team”) Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt,Anthony Mackie,John Slattery,Terence Stamp, Lisa Thoreson
If you are buying what the trailers of The Adjustment Bureau are selling, you may be expecting the wrong kind of movie. Based off a brief but mind-bending short story by cult author Philip K. Dick, the film isn’t really science fiction at all and it certainly isn’t a cousin to The Bourne Identity, as the marketing would infer. No, what Adjustment Bureau really turns out to be is a love story; a light-as-air but engrossing jaunt through the minefield of free will vs. predestination. Do we have a fate? Does true, romantic love factor into that fate? How much control do we have over it? Can Blunt really run that well in those heels?
I’ll confess up front that I’m a big P.K.D fan and haven’t always been impressed with the way his work is adapted to the screen. For one thing, most studios and producers see Dick’s bizarre concepts more as jumping off points than actual adaptable works. Minority Report, Blade Runner, and Total Recall bear minimal resemblance to the stories that inspired them. This is largely because Dick, although a fascinating and imaginative writer, was also a dreamy and hallucinogenic storyteller more concerned with the spiritual implications of his ideas than the genre trappings surrounding them. One of the best things about the film version of The Adjustment Bureau is that although it extrapolates much, it is true to the spirit and intent of the original work. In fact, it’s better.
New Yorker David Norris (Matt Damon) is on the eve of a major loss in his bid for a U.S. Senate seat when he heads into a public restroom to clear his head and prepare his concession speech. Then, through a strange coincidence he has a meet cute with the lovely, disarming Elise (Emily Blunt). Everything changes for him there, starting in the smallest of ways with a kiss and then inspiration. He goes out there, gives a speech different than the one he had planned. What could have been defeat is transformed into a second chance and he can’t stop thinking about her. It’s like the universe placed her right there for him. A year later he runs into her on a train and tries to get her information—he figures it’s too good to be true, and he’s right. Shadowy men with fedoras are haunting his job, freezing time and erasing memories. As it turns out, all of this is about David and Elise. You, see they simply aren’t meant to be, not according to the plan.
There aren’t a number of big surprises or mind bending twists in The Adjustment Bureau. It isn’t that kind of movie. Instead, it moves straight-forward through its story, letting the more fantastical details of its plot drift over the audience in waves. As a result, it’s better to experience the main thrust of the tale while watching the film, not reading about in a review. So, I’ll stop there with summary except to say two things.
The first; David wants Elise regardless of the consequences, which the strange agents have warned him about. To be more precise, David wants an opportunity to see what might have happened after that kiss and those stolen moments on the bus. So, he goes after her and sends the adjustors and their agency scurrying to course correct the damage he is doing to ‘The Plan’. That’s the primary focus of the film; boy meets girl and then tries to keep meeting girl even though powerful forces are bent on keeping them apart.
The second thing is this; The Adjustment Bureau isn’t just a shadowy cabal of villains, like the Strangers from Dark City or the agents in The Matrix. They aren’t evil at all, just bureaucratic pencil pushers that also get to work in the field from time to time. What sets the film apart that the secondary story follows the agents as they go about their work. Nofi allows us to watch them gathering data and studying the plans, seated at long tables in a vast library; an image that would make one great Edward Hopper painting.
The adjustors have names and personalities, even regrets. Two of them, Richardson (John Slattery) and Harry (Anthony Mackie) actually have questions and frustrations about the nature of their job. They are assigned to David, and his insistence on spurning their methods forces them to an interesting question; Is there more than one plan? According to the guys in archives, this is answer is yes. But, how can that be?
The director of the film is George Nolfi, and he’s done most of his previous work as a writer on both The Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean’s Twelve. I felt jerked around by both of those movies, but no so here. He sets up the fanciful and potentially ridiculous premise with a skillful hand and captures the city and its architecture in a haunting, elegiac way that serves as an foreboding backdrop to a story that is anything but. He keeps both narrative tracks running nimbly, and bridges them elegantly with the arrival of Thompson (Terrence Stamp), a high level agent that supercedes Richardson and starts chasing down David. The story weaves in and out of reality, and the emphasis the script places on David’s Senate bid, Elise’s struggles in ballet, and their individual pasts, help set their relationship outside of the fantasy hokum bubbling under the surface. What works best, is that Nolfi lets Damon and Blunt drive the film and play as its bright, burning center.
It’s been awhile since I’ve bought an onscreen couple in the way I do these two. Damon gives a very affable and relaxed performance; one that pursues the internal workings of David instead of relying upon the good-natured smarm of his own persona. Blunt for her part is radiant, sarcastic and just the right bit of bewitching. Elise is on the edge of the frame in the first half of the story, teasing, taunting and encouraging David even when she’s not aware of why he’s pursuing her so avidly. When they come together, like in that opening bathroom scene, the result is nearly magic.
It’s easy to relate to these two, meeting each other in a moment they didn’t expect, and realizing that every moment that follows will be richer than the ones that didn’t because this one occurred. When the Bureau starts pushing in on the couple, and the realities of the world close in, their love and passion for one another only grow. I believed in it, and with everything else going on, that’s impressive. In films of sci-fi and fantasy it isn’t enough to have a good story. You need characters you are willing to follow. I’d follow these two all the way into another movie if need be.
The Adjustment Bureau isn’t quite a great movie. It’s a good love story and it’s fantastic as a different kind of date movie. I enjoyed almost all of it, and was particularly taken with the chase scene that occurs in the film’s last half hour. Not to reveal too much, but it involves David using one of the agents’ hats to parse the causal tunnel by which they travel. Think of it as the existential version of the Door chase from Monsters. Inc. It’s dizzying, fantastically shot and gives the movie a rousing note to end on.
And yet, there’s something holding the film back. It could have been one of the very best movies of the year if it had followed it’s questions of true love, cause and event, and free will to their final conclusion. David wants to meet The Chairman and thinks he might have answers. At some point, no matter how content I was to follow David and Elise, I wanted to see that movie; a man fighting the universe itself for what he believed to be the one thing that made it worth existing at all. Instead, we get a breezy, tacked on coda that wraps everything up too neatly. We are left on that rooftop wondering ‘Is this it?’
Still, this is a good movie and one that deserves to find an audience in the crowded marketplace this weekend. It is true to the inspirations of its author and to the aims of speculative fiction and fantasy in general. In some ways, once we have set aside all questions of a Bureau, the Chairman and the bending of time and space, it is quite relatable. How many of us, watching the folding passages and opening/closing rooms of our own lives have wondered; what’s behind that door I never opened? More importantly for the world of The Adjustment Bureau, having once peeked through that door, would I have the courage to open it again?