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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Review: The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

* * * 1/2

Director: George Nolfi
Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt

Someone in Hollywood should probably build a statue in honor of Philip K. Dick because I'm hard pressed to think of any other writer who has provided filmmakers with as much material (except, possibly, Shakespeare). Like many adaptations of Dick's work, George Nolfi's The Adjustment Bureau is only loosely based on the original but it is still defined by that unmistakable sense of paranoia that pervades much of the author's work.

The Adjustment Bureau adopts the premise that life proceeds according to a pre-written plan (although one which we later learn is sometimes rewritten), but that sometimes minor adjustments are necessary and these adjustments are handled by the Adjustment Bureau. As the film opens, Adjustment agents are focusing their attention on David Norris (Matt Damon), a Senate candidate who might, one day, be a Presidential candidate but only if his interactions with Elise (Emily Blunt), a woman he meets on election night, are limited to that one meeting. When Harry (Anthony Mackie), one of the agents, fails to make David spill his coffee the following morning, it results not only in David meeting Elise a second time, it also results in him discovering the existence of the agents.

David is warned about keeping his new knowledge a secret and the agents ensure that he loses contact with Elise, but David continues looking for her and eventually reconnects. Once again the bureau steps in to force them apart but as they continue to engage in a battle of wits with David, they discover that there's a reason why David feels the need to be with Elise so badly: in several previous versions of the plan they were meant to be together.

That last element of the plot presents a bit of a problem for a couple of reasons. For one, it leads to a very weak ending brought about by a deus ex machina. For another, the ending suggests that the story is one of the triumph of free will which it really isn't since David and Elise were meant to be together in several versions of the plan, just not in the current re-write. David and Elise feel like they're meant to be together because their emotions are being informed by echoes of previous plans, echoes which are so strong because there were so many previous plans in which they ended up together. This isn't an out of nowhere relationship, there's already a sense of pre-determination to it and that pretty severely undercuts what the film is trying to say in its final moments.

There are other elements of the story that I'm not sure truly stand up to scrutiny (for example, how is it that agents can cause a car crash to impede David in the middle of the film but Harry can't make a bus stop for him at the beginning?), but on a technical level I think The Adjustment Bureau is strong enough to make up for it. Thrillers, by and large, work because there is a sense of the walls closing in and time running out. Nolfi makes this film work even though he subverts those elements, forgoing narrow, enclosed spaces in favour of more spacious mis en scène, and managing to maintain a sense of urgency despite the fact that the story unfolds over a series of years rather than a few days, which would be more typical for the genre.

The film also works because Damon and Blunt are able to create believeable characters and a relationship with some depth. The relationship isn't simply a plot point, but is developed and nurtured enough to be compelling on its own even without the metaphysical element of the story. Damon and Blunt are both great actors and they really bring a lot to this movie, which is a significant reason why the movie succeeds as much as it does. They put a human face on the big ideas the story is playing with and it creates a nice balance between emotion and intellect. Although I don't think The Adjustment Bureau is as strong as it could have been, I still think it's a really good and very entertaining film.

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