Review: The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

The Adjustment Bureau


George Nolfi
George Nolfi (Short Story: Philip K. Dick)
106 min.
Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Michael Kelly, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Jennifer Ehle, Terence Stamp
MPAA Rating
PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image

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Source Material

What if free will is a myth? What if the creator gives the semblance of free will in an effort to placate the masses to push forward with his own vision of the future. The Adjustment Bureau speaks both for and against this concept with equal frustration.

David Norris (Matt Damon) is an up-and-coming congressman from New York whose attempts to be elected to the Senate are thwarted, not by his past indiscretions as we are first led to believe, but by a group of “corporate” adjusters forcing him into a predestined plan. It is during the election night event that he meets the beautiful British dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) who he shares an intimate moment in the men’s restroom shortly before going on stage to give his concession speech. It is this encounter that gives him the encouragement he needs to stand in front of the crowd and deliver an electrifying speech that sets him up for a sure victory in six years. The only problem is that the girl he has just encountered was supposed to be his fated lover, but plans have changed and David is close to a life-altering discovery.

After moving into the private sector, a chance encounter with Elise on a bus, a bus David was not supposed to catch, sets in motion a series of events that slowly unravel the master plan that the adjusters are trying to keep together. Faced with a crisis, The Adjustment Bureau reveals itself to David and tells him that terrible things could happen if he continues to pursue and interact with Elise. It does not stop him and, after a time, he tracks Elise down again only to invite the scrutiny of the Bureau once again. This time, they convince him to stay away from her or risk her life and happiness because of his foolishness. Out of love for her, he agrees not to see her again, abandoning her when she needs him most.

Other forces are moving in David and Elise’s lives and they are not part of the “Chairman’s” plan. The power of passion and love compel them down their paths and they won’t be dissuaded by external forces, despite the manifest destiny that has been laid before them, in rapidly changing maps of the future held by the Adjustment Bureau’s be-hatted members.

Screenwriter George Nolfi takes on two duties with his debut feature, which he adapted from a Phillip K. Dick short story. The Adjustment Bureau bares little resemblance to the Dick short, which only concerns itself with the concept of an Adjustment Team (the story’s title) with everything else jettisoned. Other than for copyright reasons, there is little reason to have given Dick any credit. It would be like taking a painting off the wall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and building a papier maché model. Good for a bit of reference, but missing a great deal of the detail and richness that made the source compelling in the first place.

Not that Damon and Blunt don’t work extremely hard to make it feel more resonant. Their performances stand out from the film as examples of rising above the material. Their innate chemistry makes for a compelling story. Ignoring the film’s more troubling elements, Damon and Blunt navigate skillfully through the light twists in the narrative and make you root for their success. It’s like watching a classic Hollywood team like Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn or Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Gifted thespians whose work together often transcended the quality of the material to make for a more engaging experience.

The three most prominent adjusters, played by Anthony Mackie (David’s personal adjuster), John Slattery (his immediate superior) and Terence Stamp (the cleaner), provide able support to Damon and Blunt, each appealing to the audience in their own way. Even their support of the story seems minimal when compared with the undeniable leads.

Hollywood has a knack for diluting the basic premises of source material in order to appeal to a broader demographic. And while such diversions can be entertaining, there’s a hollowness left behind that makes it difficult to love. The Adjustment Bureau is a smart framework filled with no heft or weight, it all having been drained out by producers with no idea how to tell a good story without pandering. What they don’t recognize is how often the public has the ability to understand complexity. Christopher Nolan’s been working on the right track and has proven entertainment, intelligence and art can be combined without sacrificing box office or your soul.

Perhaps The Adjustment Bureau is less about religion and more about the power structure in Hollywood. The studios have a plan and deviating from that plan, they believe, will have catastrophic effects on their future, so anyone or anything that gets in their way is adjusted and moved out of the way so that their lofty aspirations can continue unabated. Yet, every once in awhile, a smart, sophisticated work finds the flaws in the system and struggles to escape those confines and capture the hearts and minds of the public. The Adjustment Bureau is a great metaphor, but a terrible example.
Review Written
March 21, 2011

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