Review: The Adjustment Bureau

By  · Published on March 4th, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau, loosely adapted from a Philip K. Dick story, takes on one of science fiction’s stock themes. Fans of Lost, for example, or Minority Report or The Matrix will recognize the classic struggle between fate and free will at the heart of the picture, the clash between the universe’s plan for us and our desire to carve out our own destiny.

It’s familiar, quasi-religious territory rendered with stylish flair by writer-director George Nolfi and cinematographer John Toll. Set in a Manhattan rife with dapper henchmen in fedoras and swanky buildings with long marble foyers, captured in sweeping camera movements and symmetrical compositions, the film has the look of a production of weighty, spiritual import.

Yet that stylistic edge services a love story that starts flat and never gets going. It’s a forced and altogether empty conjoining of two moderately likable, exceedingly bland individuals that inspires none of the deep, transcendent passion required of a narrative so immersed in spirituality.

Matt Damon, never as charismatic when he plays it straight, stars as U.S. congressman/senate candidate David Norris. One day, a series of unforeseen events culminates in the congressman stumbling upon the secret existence of an “adjustment bureau,” an organization comprised of serious, suited field operatives charged with ensuring earthly events proceed “according to plan.” What plan, you ask? Why “the chairman’s” of course, as spelled out in magical books comprised of endlessly shifting digital lines and colorful spinning graphical wheels.

The news might not be so problematic for our hero, were it not for this: The plan dictates that he never again contact love of his life Elise (Emily Blunt). Oh yeah, and if he should happen to mention the whole adjustment bureau plan thing to anyone, bureau employee Richardson (John Slattery) promises a lobotomy. The tortured heart clashes with the reeling mind. David refuses the orders and it fast becomes time to flee, with the assistance of rogue bureau worker Harry (Anthony Mackie), who, as he so helpfully notes, has his own reasons for aiding David’s defiance.

The premise promises an engaging, wronged-man thriller with metaphysical overtones, but Nolfi fails to deliver. The supernatural elements are entangled in clunky devices (the books) and half-baked rhetoric about “chairmen,” “plans” and “ripple effects.” The bureau is presented as more of a second-rate FBI than an imposing, otherworldly body. The murkily elucidated threat it poses never hits home, as its role in the story remains in constant flux, chaotically propelling from sinister to benign.

The real bad guy, then, is nothing short of the universe itself. So it’s strange that David seems forever on top of the proceedings, one step ahead of his pursuers, constantly subverting the cosmos. Damon further saps the picture of needed David vs. Goliath drama by playing David with Jason Bourne’s suave, stoic cool. All that’s missing are the advanced fighting skills. The struggle is hardly a fair fight, but not in the way you’d expect.

At the end of the day, though, the movie aims to evoke the passion and deep visceral feeling of a grandiose romance that transcends time, space and the natural order of things. And in that vein it fails, rather spectacularly. Nolfi’s writing lacks the concise, relatable power such material requires while the stars demonstrate tepid chemistry far removed from the needed sense of a smoldering, intense attraction.

The imposition of the love story template could have overshadowed the inconsistencies in the film’s other familiar areas. Absent from Dick’s story, the romantic context for it all is Nolfi’s grand conceit, his mode for streamlining and shaping the shapeless pseudo-religiosity at the core of The Adjustment Bureau. Yet the connection between David and Elise lacks the inextricable, obsessive qualities of the ties that bind the most lasting movie couples.

Their defiant love affair is but one obligatory component of a narrative that struggles to find a cohesive form, to meaningfully be about more than pretty people running from well-coiffed baddies through an eloquent cityscape. Deus ex machina plays such a major role in the way things play out that it’s hard to leave the theater feeling anything less than cheated, as if a promising good time has been cruelly snatched away.

The Upside: The film is very well-shot, presenting a vision of a New York rife with imposing, grandiose buildings in which the fate of the world could believably be decided.

The Downside: It’s centered on a tepid, boring romance; stars Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have no chemistry.

On the Side: Jon Stewart, New York local TV anchor Chuck Scarborough, James Carville and Mary Matalin all make appearances.