If you would have told me before this week that I would have enjoyed Rango more than The Adjustment Bureau, I would have called you crazy. George Nolfi’s directorial debut has star power, a relatively original plot, and a trailer that seems to hint at greatness. While it does tackle some complex issues (like fate vs. free will), the film just scratches the surface of its potential and, though never quite taking it to the next level, still ends up as an enjoyable ride.
The concept for the movie is really interesting: young politician David Norris (Matt Damon) has a chance meeting with a Elise (Emily Blunt), a beautiful young dancer who inspires him to give a particularly moving speech which sets him up to be the frontrunner for the upcoming Senatorial race. We are also introduced to the fedora-sporting Adjustment Bureau, an organization operating without human knowledge in the background of society, gifted with undefined powers to alter people’s destinies to fit a Master Plan. When a bureau agent (Anthony Mackie) slips up, Norris discovers their existence and confronts their leader (John Slattery), promising that he won’t stop until he’s with Elise. The rest of the movie – despite its abrupt time shifts – is basically a combination romance and chase thriller, which works fine but never truly explores the big ideas they’re working with in a meaningful way.
If the bureau sounds a bit like angels working on behalf of God, that’s on purpose – it’s specifically referenced in the film (though never confirmed as truth). There’s even a man upstairs: The Chairman, an entity who – spoiler alert! – is never explicitly shown in the movie. The climax eventually includes a chase to see The Chairman, but like the rest of the ideologies in this film, this one is just explained away, never explaining the “why” to the audience. If the entire film were more cerebral, I would take that as a statement unto itself, perhaps as a commentary on the hierarchy of religion or a condemnation of its structure. But since most of this movie never mines psychological territory in the same way that, say, Inception does, I just found the lack of payoff a bit underwhelming.
It’s almost impossible for the seasoned movie-goer to watch this film and not think of Inception. One of the biggest criticisms of Chris Nolan’s movie is that it spends too much time in exposition, featuring in-depth explanations from character to character about the rules of the dream world. The same issues arise in The Adjustment Bureau; characters sit around and explain arbitrary rules to Norris as the film progresses, and as the movie moves forward the rules get more outrageous. The final act of the film begins with a training montage of how to travel through a labyrinthine portal system the bureau has access to, with qualifiers such as “you have to be wearing a hat to enter the door” and “ALWAYS turn the handle clockwise.” No, I’m not joking – that’s the level of ridiculousness into which this film devolves, and it’s a shame because the rest of it is actually pretty good.
Damon and Blunt have solid chemistry; it’s so much fun watching two people who are great at their jobs perform, even in the confines of an ultimately disappointing movie. Emily Blunt is an actress on the rise – she hasn’t been in many high-profile releases in her career thus far, but expect that to change in the years to come. She’s got the whole package, equally adept at playing royalty and the girl next door. And Matt Damon is just so freaking likeable that it’s impossible not to root for the guy. (The filmmakers play on this in the movie, too, utilizing his boyish good looks as a plot point for his character’s arc.)
George Nolfi, best known for his screenwriting work (Ocean’s Twelve, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Sentinel), transitions to the director’s chair for this project, which he updated from a Philip K. Dick short story. As a director, he’s confident and thorough – every shot feels planned and the editing reveals the vision of a man with a clear plan in his head. (Being a writer/director also helps.) It’s just unfortunate that he didn’t strive for a bit more here; there’s so much interesting territory to be covered with a premise like this, and though it touches on some overarching questions, it never really comes down on them with any sense of meaning.
Despite some over-reliance on exposition, The Adjustment Bureau succeeds on the backs of its leads and strong supporting cast. The concepts explored are fascinating and the cinematography is slick, so I’d say this is absolutely worth a rental. Actually, for me, this is the perfect example of what I consider to be a rental: a good movie that doesn’t have any outstanding qualities deserving of a big screen viewing, but one that features good performances and is intellectually stimulating enough to watch with friends and talk about it afterwards. Until next time…