Review of The Adjustment Bureau - I recommend not adjusting your calendar to see it.
(1-1/2 out of 5 stars)
George Nolfi’s directorial debut THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU takes itself very seriously, its grayness, save for brief bursts of color in Elise’s red dress or the grass below Lady Liberty, further exacerbating its grave tone. I would definitely have welcomed some fun poked at the bureau’s Keystone Kop moments. But worst of all, its creators never decide whether the film’s a love story or sci-fi adventure a la THE MATRIX. It vacillates between the genres but in the end fleshes out neither enough to satisfy viewers: Norris’s time with Elise is minimal, and the of unseen manipulators theme - BUREAU’s biggest potential drawing card - is full of gaping holes. The writers take the easy way out of adapting the original short story, neither explaining nor expanding upon any of the ideas the parallel universe of the Adjustment Bureau puts forth.
The story concerns an up-and-coming young politician named David Norris (Matt Damon) who meets and falls for a beautiful ballerina, Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt). Yet mysterious men in gray fedoras keep getting in the way. Known as The Adjustment Bureau, these puppeteers of humankind do everything in their power to shape the world according to their own perceived sense of order. But this doesn’t stop Norris from fighting for his own unique destiny and the girl he loves.
The film is based on the 1954 short story, The Adjustment Team, by Philip K. Dick, author of the original tales behind popular films such as BLADE RUNNER, TOTAL RECALL and MINORITY REPORT. (His daughter Isa Dick Hackett served as executive producer.) The bureau members’ fedoras and snappy suits are an obvious holdover from the 1950s when Dick penned his tale, though his all-male organization at least is updated enough to show some racial diversity. And perhaps it’s not coincidental that John Slattery was cast, an actor we’re all accustomed to seeing in the similar fashion of Mad Men’s early to mid 1960’s.
Damon’s protagonist is milquetoast when not bantering with Elise or delivering a grabbing concession speech, the latter when he chucks focus-grouped notes to openly mock our modern-day politicians’ standard pre-packaging. Pontificating on the absurdities of polling scuffed shoes and tie color for a campaign, it’s the one great moment in the film. Otherwise his bland, generic campaign is full of the usual platitudes, a depressing reminder of what we’re accustomed and limited to most real-life public servants. Adoring pedestrians reaching out to touch him made me think, really? This guy? I’m also still getting used to this thicker, older Damon, an actor I’m more accustomed to seeing svelte and dashing, even as recently as in last year’s GREEN ZONE.
Emily Morton meanwhile is sly, quick-witted and irreverent as Elise. It’s easy to see why Norris would go gaga over her, though vice versa is a tougher sell. She breathes fresh air into his regimented days and this flat film. As for the largely blank and sullen adjusters - which I’ll call them for brevity’s sake - we never learn what makes them tick or how they ended up “adjusting,” whether it’s Richardson (Slattery), the more conscientious Harry (Anthony Mackie), or their boss Thompson (Terence Stamp). Stamp injects prestige into BUREAU with his presence alone, a marvelous actor with hard eyes and a stately voice, but, sadly, looks frail here, as if waylaid by poor health. Last of all Michael Kelly rounds out the cast, adding a warmth and likability to Norris’s (non-adjuster) chief of staff Charlie.
Thompson’s explanation of the Bureau’s work over the centuries is interesting but all too brief, their periodic absences from pulling humanity’s strings resulting in The Dark Ages and the twentieth century’s two world wars. It’s suggested they’re not human – so then why do they care about us? We never find out, nor is it explained how every Bureau member but Harry can be so vehemently anti-philosophical about their mission to alter human history. Harry’s claim that they don’t lead with their emotions illuminates nothing.
Their powers are also murky. It’s hinted briefly that they can read minds, Richardson merely points a finger to make Norris stumble, and they force car crashes and people’s actions with their thoughts - yet there are plenty of moments when such abilities would have come in handy but go unused. It’s fun watching Norris stroll into work unaware that his coworkers are immobilized, but odd that the adjustors don’t use this trick in particular while chasing people around the city. Yet another inconsistency: Harry smashes into a windshield, then resumes sprinting, but another adjuster gets knocked out from a punch to the face.
On the gadget front, these men in gray traverse the city via portals disguised as simple doors, allowing them to cover large distances in an instant: open a door in Midtown, close it behind you in Tribeca. But they can only use the doors while wearing their fedoras, which felt silly. And they look like tourists poking constantly their noses in their books of blinking lights. Yet these guys are supposed to be cool? Men in Black they are not. And finally, we never get to see them use their ultimate weapon of “resetting,” or lobotomizing, a person, so the threat rings hollow.
Audience members ultimately began laughing at the adjusters’ solemn warnings. (“We tried to reason with you.”) Not to mention their ceaseless amazement at Norris’s ability to outwit them, not that it seemed difficult to begin with. These guys have been doing this for hundreds of years? Norris is no Brainiac, but other than some other briefly mentioned person, it seems only he can make fools of them at every turn. At this rate, you’d think their secrets would have spilled centuries ago! There was also giggling at the mentions of the top dog, The Chairman. (We assume he’s God, not Sinatra.) But we never meet him/Him or really see his/His work, lending to the welcome ending’s cop-out feel, all problems solved in one fell swoop. Thompson’s finale is also frustratingly anti-climactic.
To add insult to injury, abundant inconsistencies appear in THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU’s use of New York locales. Characters often step from one neighborhood into a non-contiguous one, and not via the door portals. Norris only has to cross a street to get from the Financial District to Madison Park in one scene; he and Elise zoom from the West Village to Central Park’s Tavern On the Green in another. For a film so preoccupied with the city’s geography, this oversight especially qualifies as a no-no. The costumery also suffers occasional blips, such as when Thompson’s scarf transitions from under his jacket to over his lapels in the blink of an eye.
I love sci-fi movies of all stripes and can even be sold on the occasional romantic drama. But THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU sadly fails on both counts, so I recommend not adjusting your calendar to see it. And watch out for those men in hats.
Genre/s: Romance Thriller
Release Date/s: March 4, 2011 (Showtimes & Tickets)
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Production Company: Media Rights Capital, Electric Shepherd Productions, Universal Pictures
Official Site: Visit the Official Site
CAST and CREW FOR The Adjustment Bureau
Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, Terence Stamp, Daniel Dae Kim, John Slattery, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Michael Kelly, Liam Ferguson, Anthony Ruivivar, David Alan Basche
Directed By: George Nolfi
Written By: George Nolfi based on the short story "The Adjustment Team" written by Philip K. Dick.
Produced By: Chris Moore, Michael Hackett, George Nolfi, Bill Carraro
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