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MOVIE REVIEW: The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Despite good performances and strong chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, director George Nolfi’s earnest adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “Adjustment Team” only comes to life in fits and starts.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: On the day he loses the election for U.S. Senate, David Norris becomes inspired by Elise Sallas, only to learn that there are forces designed to keep them apart.

PROS: Good cast, especially Anthony Mackie and Terence Stamp; Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have good chemistry; good multi-dimensional chase through New York City; and it’s refreshing to see a Dick adaptation that concentrates more on character than situation.
CONS: A good idea that simply doesn’t go far enough; silly fantastic conventions that are never given any reasonable explanation; bland direction from Nolfi; letdown of an ending.

In The Adjustment Bureau, David Norris (Matt Damon) is running from fate itself. This is a very strange thing, since suited men in fedoras want to make sure he fulfills the plans set forth by The Chairman. It turns out he can make a difference; though at the beginning of the movie he has lost an election to the Senate, he will win the next election, and ultimately will become President of the United States, and one of the greatest at that. All he has to do (and there’s always this kind of catch) is never see Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) again. Quite a quandary: you have the potential to better the lives of your fellow countrymen, you’ve been told that it will happen, and the only thing you have to give up is True Love.

Simple enough, right? Sure. Except that Norris has already met Elise (in one of the least cloying Meet Cutes that I’ve seen in a long while) while rehearsing a concession speech; he is so taken with her that he goes off message and addresses his supporters honestly and graciously. (Indeed, Norris is so likeable and sincere that one wonders what the hell he’s doing in politics in the first place.) It’s a strong and surprisingly subtle bit of foreshadowing; Norris talks about the focus groups that have chosen his ties and shoes to generate a specific identity and audience reaction, only to leave that speech behind and talk about the little things he needed to do in order to win votes. The paradox, however, is that he would not have done it had the Adjustment Bureau not allowed him to meet Elise. After he meets her again on a bus (another good scene) that he was supposed to miss, and sees the titular Bureau adjusting his former campaign manager and office mates, he is taken to a cavernous industrial basement where team leader Richardson (John Slattery) explains things: the Bureau ensures that things that are supposed to happen do happen; they are employed by The Chairman (who he is never explained, perhaps wisely so) who has drawn up humanity’s plans; if Norris informs anybody of the Bureau, even inadvertently, he will be “reset.” And, in order to keep the Chairman’s plans from going awry, Norris must never see Elise again.

Readers keep returning to Philip K. Dick’s stories for their metaphysical pretzels, and writer/director George Nolfi provides them a good deal of play here, more so than almost any other Dick adaptation. Interestingly, in adapting “Adjustment Team” (one of Dick’s lesser stories) to the screen, he chooses to let it take the form not of a Paul Verhoven gorefest (Total Recall), John Woo bulletfest (Paycheck) or even a Nicolas Cage action snoozer (Next), but, like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, instead stuffs a variety of genres into a cinematic blender (in this case, romantic comedy, Alfred Hitchcock, Twilight Zone episode and metaphysical thriller) and press puree. That its execution never lives up to its ambition is a letdown, but at least it tries.

Mostly. Often romantic comedies fail because their leads lack chemistry; Matt Damon and Emily Blunt (keep in mind I’ve never been the biggest fan of either) crackle when they are on screen. Often thrillers fail because they’re antagonists are one dimensional; John Slattery, Terence Stamp (an Adjuster named Thompson, who burns with bureaucratic menace) and Anthony Mackie provide enough humor and sympathy to ensure that the sides aren’t completely clear cut. When Hitchcock failed, he let theme overtake his deft touch; Nolfi keeps things moving with a surprising amount of skill, never letting the movie bog down. (One of the best scenes in the movie takes place near the end, where Damon, chased by the Adjustment Bureau, opens doors that refold time and space.)

And yet, The Adjustment Bureau never quite gels. For all of its metaphysical questions, the script feels underfinished. When Norris meets Mackie’s sympathetic Mitchell on a ferry, he learns that the Bureau cannot see when events occur on or around water. Why is never explained, and it raises other questions. Does this mean that they have no control over what happens on a Carnival Cruise ship? Or that they have no control over Somali pirates? Wait a minute: human beings are seventy percent water. How are they able to control anything humans do as a consequence? Additionally, we learn that the hats every member of the Bureau wears a hat when traversing the space-time continuum of New York City, allowing them to create shortcuts. Interesting, but arbitrary, and a little silly. Not only that, but Nolfi keeps everything fairly Manhattan-centric; I would have loved for him to take a page out of Monsters, Inc., and had the chase extend to the bayous of Louisiana, or perhaps stumble in on arms dealers in Qatar.

Blandness, ultimately, hampers The Adjustment Bureau. Despite a winning premise and a good cast, it never acquires its own, quirky identity, as did Marc Forster’s similarly themed (and equally flawed) Stranger Than Fiction. Though the stakes are nothing less than Norris’s and Elise’s free will, the movie lacks any real bite. Though John Toll’s cinematography is quite good, visually not much distinguishes the movie from most thrillers. (However, he gets points for controlled formal shots when the focus is the Adjustment Bureau and handheld shots when the focus is on the leads.) In the end, The Adjustment Bureau doesn’t learn its own lesson: spontaneity, it seems, makes us human. The Adjustment Bureau sticks too closely to its own plan, and as such, is unable to outrun its own fate.

2 Comments on MOVIE REVIEW: The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

  1. Darn.

    I had high hopes for this one. It sounds like its more of a rental than a full price movie experience.


    Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful review.

  2. Audience reaction to TAB is atypically similar to the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, about 70% positive/30% negative.  I’m with the majority on this 1.  A relentlessly romantic movie that should have been released the Thursday before Valentine’s Day weekend.  The final scene was overly positive &  D. Johnson’s observation about the role of water is correct.

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