Tuesday, March 8, 2011

New Release Review: The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi, 2011)

Are our fates under the complete control of unseen forces or do we possess the opportunity and power to alter our own fates and assume free will? How willing are we to risk everything we were destined to achieve to fully experience true love? These are just two of the many questions that fuel the romantic fantasy thriller, The Adjustment Bureau, written and directed by George Nolfi, and starring the likable pairing of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. Based loosely on the Phillip K. Dick short story "The Adjustment Team", The Adjustment Bureau is an exciting blend of fantasy, romance, humor and science-fiction adventure, which stands as one of the best 2011 releases to date. While the plot is not completely satisfying and could have taken a few more risks, and it briefly loses it's ability to engage in the middle third, the romance is genuinely moving and made plausible by the fine chemistry between Damon and Blunt.

David Norris (Damon) is a young, charismatic and popular New York politician running for the United States Senate. The long-time leader for the position, a string of indiscretions and bad press have forced him to settle with a loss. While nervously preparing his concession speech in the hotel bathroom, he meets a mysterious woman (Blunt). She had been crashing a wedding and had hidden from security in the male bathrooms. Having overheard his rehearsal and realized he wasn't likely to be leaving soon she awkwardly exits the stall and advises him to be more original and honest with his speech. They flirt and banter, and acting on an immediate attraction, they kiss. With love in his heart, he deviates from the plan directed by his election team and makes an honest speech, which is widely praised.

Norris miraculously bumps into the same woman on the bus the next morning. She introduces herself as Elise and gives him her number. This meeting was only made possible because of the failure of a mysterious man, Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie), to follow his clear instructions to bump into Norris and make him spill his coffee. After leaving Elise and arriving at work, he is pursued by men dressed in sharp suits and fedora hats, who capture him and bring him before a man named Richardson (John Slattery). He reveals the work of the 'Adjustment Bureau', and declares that Norris had deviated from his own predetermined fate set out for him by a figure referred to as "The Chairman". As part of his life plan he was only supposed to have met Elise once (in the bathroom to influence his speech), and their second meeting on the bus was not anticipated. They destroy her phone number, and threaten to 'reset' (via a lobotomy) him if he pursues her or reveals any knowledge of the Bureau's existence to anyone. These shady, well-dressed figures use electronic maps to track their subjects around the city, and have the ability to use any door to transport them quickly to a destination of their choosing.

Three years later Norris runs into Elise by chance once again, and Richardson discovers that their love had been written in previous plans of Norris' life, but had been rewritten out of the most recently formulated plan. This explains why they continue to have feelings for one another. The Bureau are near-emotionless, and to remain in accordance with the mission, they decide to bring in a veteran Agent, Thompson (Terrence Stamp), to take over authority of Norris' fate. Despite the fact that pursuing the love of Elise will result in his Presidential future to be ruined, and Elise's success as an elite dancer to be diminished, Norris is determined to create a fate for himself that includes Elise. Finding help and sympathy from Mitchell, Norris learns the ability to navigate the city as swiftly as the Bureau do, and makes one final attempt to reach out to Elise and remain elusive of his pursuers forever.

The film, while titled to make us assume that the films center is the Bureaucracy of Fate, is all about the romance of Norris and Elise. While The Adjustment Bureau raises questions about destiny and personal 'free will', it uses the Agents of the Bureau strictly as a plot-device to question the morality of humanity. As Thompson states, the Agents let humanity control their own fate at different intervals during their existence, and it resulted in world-wide catastrophes such as World War I and the rise of Fascism and Genocide. Humanity should not be left in charge of their own fates, he concludes. While he declares that there are too few agents to control everybody for every minute of the day, they remain largely in control of every individual on earth. It would have been great to see their work on some other people, because it felt like Norris was the only person affected by their work. In this sense, the story itself feels a little thin, but at least it leaves some questions for the audience to ponder. 

The Adjustment Bureau offers up an intriguing and appealing story, with some genuinely exciting and tense moments of action. First-time director George Nolfi (who wrote Oceans Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum), blends the blossoming romance with the taut action sequences quite well, and New York is used as a beautiful backdrop. It isn't shot to resemble a science fiction film, but is more noirish in Nolfi's chosen visual style. The score from Thomas Newman (American Beauty) was also quite involving. The performances, especially from Damon and Blunt, are very good. Always reliable, Damon is a truly gifted actor with amazing versatility. He is once again very convincing as a regular American nice-guy, capable of delivering a rich charisma with relative ease. The gorgeous Brit Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada), who like Damon seems to be in everything, is also fantastic. Their relationship is perfectly believable, despite most of their meetings being after lengthy absences from one another. Even from the first scene they share, you feel like you want them to end up together. Having said that, there are very few twists in the story, and after a slow middle act, the films conclusion is quite exciting. It is a shame it wasn't a little bit more risky but the safe Hollywood ending is certainly not a detriment, considering the entertainment value overall. John Slattery (who is nearly exactly like his character in Mad Men), Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) and Terrence Stamp (The Limey) are also very solid, and each receive their time to shine. The witty exchanges between Norris and his pursuers are often a source of humor, which was refreshing. Overall, I enjoyed The Adjustment Bureau. It is a smart, contemplative romance that will impress fans of the leads, and stands as the best 'Date Movie' currently amongst the box office line-up.

My Rating: 3 Stars (C+)

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