Chemistry, romance propel sometimes-spotty “The Adjustment Bureau”

Damon and Blunt try to outfox the world's snazziest event planners in "The Adjustment Bureau."

“Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.” ~~Toni Morrison, “Beloved”

Brooklyn-born Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon), with his Budweiser-fed frat boy looks, may or may not have read much Toni Morrison. At some point in his life, though, he undoubtedly latched on to the idea that true love, whenever and wherever it appears, is worth fighting like hell to keep. Because for all its ramblings on fate and destiny and free will, “The Adjustment Bureau” is at its center a poignant, exhilarating love story — poignant because it is deeply human, and exhilarating because it suggests that love, when it’s real, can be a gamechanger.

The fight to hold on to love, combined with Matt Damon and Emily Blunt’s fantastic chemistry, would be enough to make “The Adjustment Bureau” a worthwhile romantic dramedy. But since the film is inspired by Philip K. Dick’s story “Adjustment Team,” director George Nolfi adds in touches of sci-fi and fast-and-loose theology, with nods to “The Matrix” sprinkled in for good measure. That’s one way to make this romance stand apart from the crowd. Whether or not the sci-fi and theology and romance mesh depends on how willing viewers are to squelch their their questions because — consider this a fair warning — once the Adjustment Team appears, there’s no end to the questions. 

(For starters: Who are these men really? What does their boss, “The Chairman,” have against hiring women? If the Bureau can meddle in human lives/anticipate human choices, why is chance still a factor? Can chance circumvent The Chairman’s plans? And did the Adjustment Team members adopt their style after one too many viewings of “The Maltese Falcon”?)

“The Adjustment Bureau,” by the end, has the rare problem of seeming too short to reach its lofty ambitions. It also demands acceptance of a storyline contains a fair amount of what aren’t exactly plot holes (more like weighty concepts abandoned?), but something like them. Despite these flaws, Nolfi’s directorial debut succeeds as a romance and a thriller because it never gets too bogged down in rambling explanations. Nolfi lays out the story matter-of-factly: David, an up-and-comer full of youthful idealism, looks a sure bet to become an N.Y. senator. But when the papers make his past — including a college mooning incident — public, he loses his lead. Practicing his concession speech in a hotel men’s room, he meets Elise (Blunt, radiant as ever), a ballerina who’s just crashed a wedding and is hiding from security. Their instant connection and brief kiss inspire Norris to scrap his P.C. speech and give an uncommonly earnest talk that wins him more fans. He reconnects with Elise on the bus and gets her number, but the Adjustment Bureau — led by Richardson (John Slattery) — steps in. There’s a plan for David’s life, and Elise isn’t part of it, Richardson explains. He destroys Elise’s number and threatens to have David “reset” (his memory erased) if he reveals anything about the Bureau. Richardson, however, underestimated coworker Harry (Anthony Mackie, as good here as he was in “Half Nelson”), a particularly compassionate “adjustor” who feels responsible for David and Elise’s second meeting and tells David more. The Bureau adjustors knows everyone’s plan; it’s their business to protect the plan. They use many methods: spilled coffees, missed taxis, dead cellphone batteries, even “reprogramming” people to make different choices. Most people accept their plans without question. But David, Harry discovers, is not a cooperative sheep.

The latter half of “The Adjustment Bureau” is where the action kicks in, including a chase, helmed by agent Thompson (the perenially menacing Terence Stamp) through New York’s maze of underground tunnels and doors that open to places that explode logic. The effects are blessedly minimal compared to, say, “The Matrix” because they are not central to the story. They only serve to outline the film’s most endearing purpose: David and Elise’s love story. Damon and Blunt are perfectly matched, with Blunt ensuring Elise is funny and vital and Damon giving a lot of emotion and energy to his part. For all the lofty philosophical mutterings and theological concepts, it is these two actors who keep the film grounded.

Grade: B-

6 Responses

  1. The chemistry is fantastic, is it not? That scene is amazing, one of the best introductory sequences I’ve seen in years.

    I think I was kinder to the film than your good self. I appreciated the lightness of touch, and the fact that it’s an honest-to-goodness love story, where every stupid coincidence (he just missed her, she moved suddenly, etc) is explained by virtue of the plot.

    Good call on the men thing though. Personally, I would have gone with Tilda Swinton in a suit. That was easily the best aspect of the dire Constantine, the perfect way they captured angelic androgeny with Swinton simply dressing and carrying herself like a man.

  2. My major problem with this one had to do with the lack of tension in the finale and the utter absence of stakes. Sure, we’re told the sharp-dressed men will erase Matt Damon’s brain but we’re never really shown the threat that Stamp’s character poses. Stakes have to be established; Nolfi wants us to accept them pretty much because he says so, and he’s not willing to earn them. It ends up deflating what should have been an exciting climax.

    The questions posed don’t really bother me much, maybe apart from the gender issue and I think Darren’s suggestion of a helping of Swinton would have been absolutely fantastic. It’s really how the film falls slack when it needed to be taut. But it’s not a huge loss, since Damon and Blunt are so amazing and the first two acts are quite strong; it just could have been a great movie and wound up being a good one.

  3. I’m surprised by the lackluster response this is receiving in theatres. The fear of having your brain wiped clean resonates with the viewer without having anything shown.

  4. Your review on this helped me with my own. Found AB pretty frustrating as it brings some interesting topics to the table for discussion but it just wasn’t that entertaining or original.

  5. Jon K just gave you a new thread idea, or I guess it gave me the idea.

  6. I’ve got to agree with Andrew; I think the films biggest problem was it’s lacklustre climax. It felt like Nolfi had written himself into a corner and so just decided to end it with “God did it”. Still, the chemistry between Blunt and Damon was excellent, and a lot of the ideas were interesting if familiar (did anyone else feel like it ripped that entire door premise from The Matrix Reloaded?)

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