Sunday, March 13, 2011

Movie Review: The Adjustment Bureau

      In Need of An Adjustment

"George Nolfi's film; however, grand in scale, fails to thoroughly command my requisite suspension of disbelief because of its insufficient faithfulness to the complex narrative design. More needed to be said and a lot more needed to be done. This gaping lack of narrative totality, and subtle lack of cohesive 'adjustment,' is precisely why the film falls short of completely knocking my socks off." 

      The Adjustment Bureau is one mighty and ambitious film. For all its grandiose philosophical layers, the least ambitious element of the film—the sentimentally Shakespearean souvenir we call romance—is the single most invigorating, uniquely compelling aspect of the story. The plot is, at times, woefully impractical and logically implausible. However, damning these flaws may seem, the film succeeds as a testimonial for the power of love.
      Director George Nolfi's—the writer (never director) of many films including Ocean's Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum—newest film is a wholly satisfying romance disguised as an action/science fiction film. I mean the promotional rallying cry is "Bourne meets Inception." The complex world Nolfi creates for his film works because of the presumption of love between the two central characters, David and Elise. If not, the core of the film would be void of any redemptive quality and the characters wouldn't be worth rooting for. We would be left with a film marred by really silly contrivances. Thankfully, this concern is not even a remote approximation of the proceedings. 
      The true driving force of George Nolfi's directorial debut is the bubbling chemistry and earnestness of performance from its two stars, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. The ever so smart and handsome Damon plays young politician David Norris, and commensurate with many of his prior roles, this rakish New Yorker yearning for a Senate seat is tempered by Damon's authentically charming Guy I Want To Have A Beer With sensibility. His equally formidable co-star Emily Blunt—fully capable of enrapturing every bit of my focus—imbues her character, Elise Sellas with her unmistakably effervescent, mysteriously alluring presence. Consequently, the single most captivating and core cinematic element of the story becomes this realization of love, undoubtedly, a by-product of the fiery, impetuous chemistry between Damon and Blunt, cleverly captured in their very first scene together—frankly, it is one of the best "spark" romance scenes I've seen in a long time. This chance encounter in the bathroom is sprinkled with a warm and unguarded spice, and surprisingly, wholly believable in the way it suspends any obligatory cinematic leap of faith. It is a testament to exceptional acting as much as it is to steadfastly authentic and intricate writing. More importantly, it is the pivotal scene of the film as it beautifully establishes a romance that is worth rooting for.

      Matt Damon portrays David Norris in a persistently delightful, charismatic light. When he gives his revelatory concession speech, there is an undeniable resonance and command piercing through the delivery of his words. It is a refreshingly believable scene and makes me wonder if Damon has ever considered a run for office.
      Emily Blunt plays Elise with sultry, endearing vulnerability; she is a strong woman who cannot ascertain the cruelty of her fate. For the sake of the story, she is the indomitable spirit that reinvigorates the life of David Norris after he suffers his gravest political defeat. Their maiden encounter is brief in terms of length, but extraordinarily bold in terms of impact—sowed with an unrelenting kiss and an ill-timed interruption from David's campaign manager, Charlie (played by Michael Kelly). David reasonably suspects that he will never see this enchanting woman ever again. And yes, I am very jealous of one John Krasinski who calls this dame his wife.
      Anyway, post my digression, the film really gains traction once David reconnects with Elise on the bus the following morning. Unbeknownst to him, this encounter was not an intended event in the course of his life's "plan." A person known as an "adjuster" was supposed to intervene in David's morning commute by manipulating one tiny detail. David is a politician all-too-aware of his stately appearance, and the adjuster was supposed to pour coffee on his shirt. The incident would cause the self-conscious politician to head back to his apartment for a new one, effectively, eliminating the possibility of a second chance encounter with Elise. Or, subversively, preventing David from witnessing the surreptitious activities of the adjusters.

      Four extremely well attired men from the adjustment bureau—sporting finely tailored suits and fashionable fedoras—led by a wry speaking man named Richardson (played by Mad Men alumnus John Slattery), are compelled to explain the nature of their manipulative, other-worldy "work" to the auspicious politician. Essentially, Richardson conveys that each person's life has a predetermined plan laid out for it, and thus, the adjustment bureau's primary responsibility is to scrutinize each persons life to ensure faithful adherence. Occasionally, events transpire that categorically oppose the sanctity of the plan, and the adjusters are forced to intervene, and manipulate events around them to facilitate course corrections. Generally, these manipulations are minuscule, relying on the ripple effect, which if unheeded, will result in a confluence of events that changes the very course of the universe.
      In other words, The Adjustment Bureau is beset by a host of philosophical endowments including the idea of a higher power governing us—chiefly, the idea of free will vs. predestination. Specifically, as it applies to the film, this interminably exhaustive debate centers on the idea that we mistakenly think we have free will, but that's only because the adjustment bureau works hard to keep its incessant control over us invisible.
      Consequently, it is rare for people to have direct interaction with the adjusters. One of the adjusters, a sympathetic "angel" named Harry played competently by Anthony Mackie (I hope this guy gets more mainstream work), makes a mistake in his surveillance and manipulation of David's life, setting in motion a "ripple effect" that revives David's romance with Elise—and more pertinently, the predetermined "plan" of his life. This incident begs the question: Why is it more judicious for David's "plan" that he not be with the woman he loves? Why is he forbidden from making an autonomous decision? The most logical answer is probably because fate wants to keep them apart. But if David is hellbent on love and decides to go rogue, can the adjusters—who are not omnipotent, and who are bound by certain metaphysical, bureaucratic restrictions—stop him? This is where the "thrilling" aspect of the story really gains its momentum.
      Given a more secular reading, The Adjustment Bureau is a film that translates well to our corporate view of things; the idea that America is more of a corporation than a society or, more specifically, a traditional, non-monetized, non-consumerist belief system. From a purely thematic guise, the central tenet of Nolfi's film is that we are being nudged in certain ways, giving us the illusion that we are making our own choices. There is an overall plan or a map for peoples lives, but we internalize our decisions in a way that serves our own unique self-interest— a sort of blanket marriage of Calvinism (hard determinism) and "metaphysical libertarians."
      Phillip K. Dick, the prominent science fiction writer whose knack for intriguing narratives has led to such classics as Blade Runner, Minority Report, and Total Recall, is the formative brainchild of The Adjustment Bureau. This is the case, of course, because George Nolfi's film is based on his short story, "The Adjustment Team," which closely parallels the fundamental contrivances of Nolfi's story—a tale of paranoia, manipulative treachery, philosophical relevancy, and above all else, corporate power's alarming and encumbering influence on society.
      Matt Damon is, per the usual, a pillar of underdog virtue, playing the proverbial guy you root for because you think he'd be cool to hang out with. However, this is not a film that solely relies on strong acting leads. The supporting cast is well assimilated into the intricate workings of the film. In terms of sheer fascination, John Slattery's sardonic manner—undoubtedly, an ode to his Mad Men character, Terence Stamp's magnetic presence as a higher-up in the Adjustment Bureau, and Anthony Mackie's innocent and benevolent temperament as an "adjuster" are all delightful. Although, they may pale in comparison to the awesomeness of Damon and Blunt, these three terrific acting stalwarts do provide an acute freshness to Nolfi's film.

      One of my inexcusable gripes with the film is the inexplicably abrupt ending. After investing every ounce of my emotional sweat into David and Elise's budding romance, why the heck does Nolfi gruffly close the film? There is no real emotional denouement. Perhaps, a swiftly orchestrated five to ten minutes of story could have been shrewdly tacked onto the end; which could have provided some new insight into David and Elise's newfound life together—finally freed from the cumbersome intrusion of the Bureau, and fully aware of its subtle workings.
      It is a mark of inexperience, I suspect, as to why the film ends so unceremoniously. But consequently, for the viewers, it is sheepishly disappointing. As a macho kind of guy, I don't often admit to liking romance tales, but in the case of Damon and Blunt, their kinetic and blossoming love was so enrapturing that I wish there was just a little more.
      The Adjustment Bureau strives to be a movie of free will vs. destiny without any overt mention of God or religion. The studious avoidance of any blatant religious insinuation is what allows a neutral observer to render a non-biased appraisal.  
      Ultimately, it is a film defined by an inventive romance, but given its Philip K. Dick roots, it is also a story borne from stupendous science fiction writing. Consequently, one must pose the inevitable question: is the fanciful philosophical fare of the Bureau believable? No. In fact, this last statement is not only tenuous, but highly dubious. Fundamentally, it is this sort of high concept ideology that bleakly colors my otherwise satisfying review.
      If a film is going to make such a gigantic presumption about my appetite for philosophical abstraction, it ought to do a damn good job of convincing me of the solvency of this "momentous world." Case in point, Inception. Nolan's film wonderfully marries elements of smart, grandiose philosophical underpinnings with suspenseful, extravagant leaps of faith in a way that is sincerely believable. George Nolfi's film; however, grand in scale, fails to thoroughly command my suspension of disbelief because of its insufficient faithfulness to the complex narrative. More needed to be said and a lot more needed to be done. This gaping lack of narrative totality, and subtle lack of cohesive 'adjustment' is precisely why the film falls short of completely knocking my socks off. It could have been a classic right alongside Inception.
      Instead, much like the careers of many successful and immensely promising baseball players, hindered by continual injuries—think Don Mattingly, Yankee fans—it falls short of any Hall of Fame enshrinement. Still, it deserves an honorable mention as the best new film I've seen this year...which I'm not sure is a de facto statement of excellence considering the expected doldrums of January/February film junk.

7.5 out of 10

*The above video is the Official Fate Featurette for The Adjustment Bureau.


  1. Best new film this year? I forget you live in a different country than I do. All the good films I've seen this year you probably saw last, lol.
    I can't wait to see this film, I imagine it won't be great but it's completely the sort of thing I would enjoy. And a believable romance you say... that will make for all the more enjoyable viewing!

  2. (lol) Aha, touche!

    Thanks for the comment and for following. I'll certainly return the deed!

    I have not seen all the new films this year including Rango, which could be better. The jarringly bad movies that generally fill our multiplex's in Jan/Feb are a thing of the past. Thus, I expect a more diverse array of good films to come out soon, which will certainly trump this film as I only awarded it a 7.5 out of 10.

    That being said, it was still a really solid film that could have been great. I'm sure you'll be in for a treat esp. considering you enjoy romances—this is where The Adjustment Bureau really shines!

  3. i thought this film was pretty amazing. =] i loved the idea and the ultimate fuuu to christian beliefs.

  4. As you know, I can't stand Damon, but I positively adore Emily Blunt! She's among my top ten favourite actresses ever.

  5. 7.5 out 10...I cannot wait to see this as I read the Dick tale and loved it. I'm curious to see how much of the source material survived in recognizable form. I loathed Minority Report, it's a Spielberg flop for me. It suffered from "insufficient faithfulness" to the original story to the point where it was not someone's interpretation of Dick's vision, but rather a bright pretty new story with only the names remaining the same. I'm convinced they rewrote Anderton to Cruise's specifications.

    I respect Damon and Blunt both and seeing them together is exciting. Nolfi is a good writer, I enjoyed Ocean's Twelve and the Bourne Ultimatum very much.

  6. @ PC

    Glad you liked it! The idea was daring. It's these types of ambitious films that validate my desire to go to the movies.

    And thanks for the comment :)

    @ Dez

    Of course, I'm well aware of your extreme detest for Damon, but I think the guy is a real bonafide talent! He gives a great performance here.

    And I'm glad we agree on Emily Blunt. She is stunningly beautiful and immensely talented.

  7. @ Melissa

    I'm confident you will not leave the theater in a state of disappointment.

    I actually enjoyed Minority Report, perhaps it is slightly owed to the fact that I did not read Dick's novel. But the idea of rewriting a character for Cruise seems entirely plausible as the guy wields tremendous power with his films.

    Damon and Blunt are gold together. Awesome chemistry.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  8. Great review, Matt! I'm definitely agree that Damon and Blunt really electrify the screen and brings that sense of connective ness that we often loose in many new films these days.
    The romance also may be one of the most unexpectedly effective in quite a while, certainly as far as science fiction flicks are concerned.

  9. Thanks Jaccs!

    And you're absolutely right about their romance. It was deeply effective and one of the best I've seen in a long while. Indeed, a surprise for the science fiction genre.

  10. Great review Matty. I enjoy your attention to detail.

    I think 7.5 is a fair grade. It was romantic and touching, but for me, there were simply too many gaps in its own philosophy for me to ignore.

    Emily Blunt is very talented indeed, but it was strange for me to see her take a backseat to a man. (I recently watched "The Young Victoria" and now I expect to see her as a strong, dominating female figure - she was incredible in that one!)

    Matt Damon was engaging, as always. But why is he always running? Haha.

    Great insight, nice review!

  11. Great blog Matty V.!!!! +Following

  12. Haven't seen it, yet, but your wonderful review has definitely increased my anticipation. Good job, buddy! I love Emily Blunt, but I reckon Matt Damon is a one-trick-pony in terms of acting.

  13. I'm definitely going to have to check this out sometime. 7.5 isn't bad, that's still good. Though, this movie looks like it could have been amazing (though it's appearing from reviews it didn't reach that potential). Was an ambitious one indeed. Still, hopefully it will be a good watch and I'll get around to it when I can.

  14. @ Rachel

    Thanks! I read your review as well and you were pretty fair. The movie could have been exceptional if the narrative was more disciplined and sharp. Instead, what you get is a strong romance and an average sci-fi/action story.

    I have not seen "The Young Victoria." The story doesn't intrigue me too much, but I love Emily Blunt, so I'll just have to fight the boredom of royalty.

    @ Harry

    Thanks man! I'll return the favor, as you run a cool and interesting blog yourself.

  15. @ Nebular

    Thanks! Blunt is beautiful, talented, and hard to keep your eyes off of while Damon is very good in his role. Like I said in my review, he plays an up-n-coming politician so well I'm convinced his charm can translate to real life political success.

    @ JL

    It's not the greatest film ever, but considering the drudge of Jan/Feb movie releases, this film was a welcome surprise in reviving my love for going to the theater (rather than just watching movies on DVDS/Blu-rays, etc). It is definitely a worthy watch and I think you'll really like it!

  16. As I understood the film we do have free will, but God/the Chairman also has freewill and he has the power to impose upon our decisions. The existence of the Bureau is an indication that we can and do "go astray." That's the trouble with freedom since so many people find themselves free to enslave others. Paradoxically, we can only all be free when we can all make the decision to restrain ourselves.

    Lazarus Lupin
    art and review

  17. Your contention is accurate, and this is why I am unimpressed by the film. The film was encumbered by a host of plot holes and inexplicable turns that the philosophical underpinnings were rendered less important.

    In my analysis of the film, I allude to this seeming "paradox" of free will, as it is portrayed in the film. On one hand, the "adjuster" (Slattery) indicates that the Bureau's job is to interfere with our lives if we veer from the "plan." Thus, the idea of free will is tenuous despite our own presumption of its existence (pretty much every regular person in the film is unaware of the Bureau).

    Theoretically, the adjusters can intervene in our lives at any conceivable point—which effectively undermines our notion of "free will" because the adjusters operate from a position of predestination (knowing what our "plan" or future holds for us). Free will and predestination are at impervious odds with one another.

    "The Hammer" elucidates on the role of the Bureau in more detail, but he fails to provide any copious insight into the incidence or impetus of why the adjusters intervene in people's lives (if you remember, Damon's character asks him: if there job is to oversee us, why are there so many problems in the world?). Thus, my bone of contention with the film's underlying philosphical message stems from the litany of contradictions.

    Thanks for the comment!

  18. I watched all the Oscar-nominated movies during spring break. But I watched Adjustment bureau after Inception ,which I regret. Despite the fiction the dilemma was true as truth can get. I loved that it never pulled away from the love story.

    But, it was also not that great of a love story because Blue Valentine won my heart.

    looking forward for more things on your blog!

  19. Thanks for the comment!

    Blue Valentine's love story is hard to beat. It was probably the most honest, refreshing, and realistic portrayal I've seen committed on film last year.

    Glad you stopped by!

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