Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

Director: George Nolfi
Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Anthony Ruivivar, Michael Kelly, Terence Stamp
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Remember that sequence in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button when a series of events line up in such a way that causes Daisy to be hit by a taxi and break her leg? Almost as if it were fate or destiny because if it wasn't then she simply wouldn't have been out on the street at that time for it to happen. Every decision causes a ripple effect. The Adjustment Bureau is that sequence explored and stretched out over an entire film, which isn't such a bad thing since the idea that every action can have life-altering consequences is a popular one in science fiction, specifically in time travel films such as The Butterfly Effect, The Sound of Thunder and Back To The Future. Despite being adapted from Philip K. Dick's short story "Adjustment Team," the film's biggest strength is that it doesn't feel like straight sci-fi through a good portion of its running time. Then when it absolutely needs to, it doesn't, and in the final minutes has problems sticking the landing, favoring a more conventional resolution that undercuts what preceded it. Still, it's a fascinating idea that an adjustment team oversees our destinies, giving us a nudge every once in a while to stay on course, and first-time writer/director George Nolfi (in a really impressive debut) deserves credit for not squandering it, getting this about 80 percent right. Meticulously put together much of the way through and carried by two talented leads, greatness was within this film's reach, but slips away due to a third act that could have benefited from a little adjustment itself.

Bad boy New York Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon) finds himself at the losing end of a Senatorial bid amidst another scandal when he meets the enigmatic Elise (Emily Blunt) while practicing his concession speech in the bathroom. After delivering a dynamic, off-the-cuff speech he meets up with her again on a city bus after a mysterious man named Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) falls asleep on a park bench, failing to spill coffee on him at exactly 7:05 AM. It turns out he's a caseworker for The Adjustment Bureau given orders by his boss, Richardson (Mad Men's John Slattery) to prevent their reunion because it deviates from the "plan," This "plan" is a predetermined chain of events overseen by the "Chairman" who helps steer the course of individuals' lives for the supposed betterment of humanity. Elise wasn't supposed to be part of David's but Harry's screw-up changed that and despite successfully separating them for three years and being threatened with a "re-set" (essentially a lobotomy), David still won't give up on being with her. When all else fails, The Bureau brings in Thompson (Terence Stamp), known as "The Hammer," to take care of business and make sure David's relationship with Elise is terminated by any means necessary.

The first hour of the film is electric, cleverly disguising itself as a political thriller and revealing just enough information at just the right pace to build up a considerable amount of suspense and intrigue. When it revealed why these mysterious men in suits and bowler hats are trailing David and what they want from him, the story gains rather than loses traction as details about the Bureau and their purpose and history spill out.  The most intriguing thing about them is how normal and businesslike they are about altering lives, as if it were just simply a 9 to 5 job. With each caseworker armed with a notebook full of moving coordinates, they make an impact not by reading people's minds but by literally stopping them without their knowledge. Whether it's cutting phone lines, creating an external distraction, or even going as far as to cause a car accident to change the course, they use doors as a portal to travel between locations as quickly as possible. They clearly have supernatural powers but the film is very proficient at making their work look threatening while still being grounded on some level of reality, much like 1998's great Dark City, which shared a similar concept, but an entirely different tone. Only that film had the guts to see its vision to the bitter end without compromise.

It helps to have two characters worth caring about as Matt Damon is completely credible as an up-and-coming politician with a chip on his shoulder, but a strong idealistic desire to do right. At this point, it's tough to imagine Damon not completely nailing any role and this is just the latest in a long line. You'd understand why the Bureau would care about every decision David makes and Emily Blunt makes it easy to understand why he won't let anything stand in the way of him being with Elise. Blunt's an interesting presence as an actress. While not necessarily fitting everyone's textbook definition of beautiful, she has this strangely intriguing look to her and carries herself with a class and grace onscreen that demands full attention whenever she does or says anything, and that quality has never served her better than here. Damon and Blunt are so good together on screen and share such strong chemistry that the film's biggest weakness turns out to be getting carried away with their romance and letting it overcome the more intriguing sci-fi elements in the story. That's difficult to admit, considering how flawlessly everything flows in the early going. By overplaying his hand in the romance department in third act, Nolfi ironically loses grip on the doomed circumstances that made their relationship so riveting.

After cleverly being left in the dark for much of the picture as to why David shouldn't be with Elise (and even doubting whether the Bureau knows themselves) there's a great scene in a parking garage with David and Terence Stamp's villainous Thompson where we get some insight into why it might not be such a great idea for the two of them to be together and paints this organization in a different light. This leads to bigger questions, then even bigger ones, before settling into an unbearably suspenseful, expertly choreographed action finale. It's just too bad the revelations that come in the closing minutes are a letdown. It wouldn't be a stretch at all to say that that it unintentionally makes the finished product feel more like a "date movie" than a mysterious sci-fi action thriller. It's still good, just not great, and certainly not nearly as impactful as it should be considering the circumstances. If ever a story called for a tragic finale it's this. Unfortunately, you're instead left wondering whether this story was really as smart as it seemed to be from the beginning and if concessions were made post-production so it could make more bank at the box office.

There's nothing wrong with aiming to make a crowd pleaser, even if I'm disappointed it didn't reach for a level higher rather than fall back on the more conventional romance aspect. Still, this is one of the better films from the first half of 2011, with a first time director blending two entirely different genres successfully at least three quarters of the way through. Whether it was studio interference due to poor test screenings or an eleventh hour re-write, the last few crucial minutes (and boy are they crucial) don't work, which is a shame considering just how much else does, especially the fleshing out of a gripping premise and the two great performances carrying it. I guess you can blame me for grading on my level of expectation rather than enjoyment, since anyone looking for a well-made romantic adventure could certainly do a lot worse than The Adjustment Bureau


The Film Connoisseur said...

I agree with you, the filmmakers kind of pussied out with the ending, it should have been more profound, considering the themes they were playing with. I havent read the story it's based on, but Im willing to be the ending doesnt become a love story.

I love that idea of people controlling our destinies, as you mentioned, Dark City played with those themes perfectly, going even a bit further than The Adjustment Bureau dared. I mean, the way the film was going, I was expecting them to meet God or something!

jeremythecritic said...

Yeah, some movies can afford a lackluster ending but this couldn't. It seemed almost as if everything rested on how the final minutes played out and they blew it. A really well-made, thought-provoking film up until then but just about any other ending would have greatly improved this.

Having not read the story either I'm still willing to bet you're absolutely right. I think there's no way Philp K. Dick would have ended it like this, but if he did, I'm sure it came off better on the page than it did here. Still good, but those final minutes...ouch.

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