REVIEW: ‘The Adjustment Bureau’

Grade: C

In 1954 legendary science fiction writer Philip K. Dick released a 20-page short story titled “The Adjustment Team” wherein a group of omnipotent humans changes the natural process of humanity in order to alleviate Soviet-Western Bloc war tension. 67 years later first time director George Nolfi has attempted to turn Dick’s political and allegorical story into a feature length science fiction romance. Despite the additional length the result feels like a watered down version of the original thriller with much lower stakes and a much weaker allegory.

The Adjustment Bureau offers screenwriter George Nolfi his first opportunity behind the camera to direct his own fifth screenplay. Directors of Nolfi’s previous works include inventive action directors Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum), Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon), and Steven Soderbergh (Traffic). Nolfi clearly took a few lessons from each of their books and gives, but ultimately comes up short as The Adjustment Bureau never quite achieves the high stakes of a Greengrass film, the ironic inventiveness of a Soderbergh film, nor the straightforward action of Donner. Ultimately it is a well-acted, attractive looking misfire and it’s lack of any sense of urgency will leave you looking for the films of the great aforementioned directors.

The story follows up and coming Senate candidate David Norris (Matt Damon) who appears to be leading in the polls as the weeks approach the New York election until scandalous photos are released of him exposing his posterior, causing him to lose the election. While preparing his concession speech his path crosses with an attractive and charming wedding crasher (Emily Blunt) whose name he fails to obtain and is changed emotionally. Luckily fate, or some other force present within the film, brings them back together on a city bus where Elise gives David her number and a future rendezvous is planned. However, a time-stopping team of fedora wearing agents has been given orders to prevent their future romantic encounters and threatens David to stay away from Elise or else…

Therein lies the essential problem with The Adjustment Bureau – there is never a completion to the “or else” ellipsis. In other words, there is never an obvious or subtly implied reason for their separation. The strings are being pulled by a God character referred to in the film simply as “the chairman,” but there is never any motivation for the members of the adjustment bureau or the people they affect to listen to these instructions. The stakes are minor, causing the back and forth to become tedious.

The film is about the existence of free will and it attempts to ask whether there is actually any true choice in humanity. It is less subtly about love versus ambition and whether there can ever be true satisfaction in the lack of a romantic relationship. The film is formulated exactly like a romantic comedy except this time the outside force keeping the protagonists apart is a literal “force” with a clearly stated objective.

For a film about choice, The Adjustment Bureau is very predictable and even filmed as if Nolfi has no qualms about its obviousness. When we are introduced to a new setting the camera often gets there before the actors do and the audience watches as they walk into frame. The effect muddles the existence of an omnipresent God character as the audience seems privileged to just as much information about the characters and plot. We are not allowed to get caught up in the tension of the “choice” because the entire time the answer is so very obvious.

Despite the many flaws, the diverse cast present within the film is very nearly enough to redeem it. Matt Damon continues to be one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood, coming off three releases in 2010 for his first of four planned for 2011. He is not completely believable as a politician, but he continues to prove his ability to run with a purpose, as he did ever so nicely in the Bourne franchise. Emily Blunt makes for the perfect leading lady and is one of the best film ballerinas I’ve ever seen (including the entire cast of Black Swan). Aside from the leads the supporting powerhouse includes Mad Men’s John Slattery who delivers every line with hilarious biting sarcasm and Anthony Mackie who proves once again that he is deserving of far bigger film roles.

Bottom Line: The Adjustment Bureau ultimately fails because it raises questions that it is not prepared to answer and it fails to raise the stakes enough to make me even care.

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