Review: 'The Adjustment Bureau' an Unsteady Conversation Starter
by Jeremy Kirk
March 4, 2011
There's a flimsiness to the story found in The Adjustment Bureau, the latest science fiction film - this one also a romance story - based on work by Philip K. Dick. It's an unsteady feeling that derives from the presence of a higher force, something controlling the action surrounding Matt Damon's David Norris and his quest for love and happiness with Emily Blunt's Elise Sellas. The control in question doesn't come from the mysterious suited men who approach him and tell him they're members of the organization that ensures things in the world go precisely as planned. They have all the powers of a deity to do just that whether it be reading someone's thoughts or being able to transport over long distances through strange doorways.
In this case, the plan they are attempting to keep on track doesn't include David and Elise together. In fact, these mysterious men are making every effort to guarantee that union doesn't happen.
In that, The Adjustment Bureau has a fine premise, the belief that the universe and those who ultimately control it are keeping one human being from pursuing that which he wants most of all. It's an absolute David vs. Goliath battle, and George Nolfi, who both adapted the original short story "Adjustment Team" and directed the film, sets up a nice painted in corner he must get his lead character out of.
David and Elise are both strong character. David follows the rules laid out for him by the Bureau to leave Elise alone lest both of their futures and dreams be unraveled. Elise, in the dark for much of the film, reacts as anyone would when someone bounces in and out of their lives. It's a nice level of believability in the midst of this story that is relatively fantastical depending on what you believe. Are the members of the Bureau angels? Is there such a thing as fate, or can we direct the course of our own lives? It's a series of questions and vague answers that gives The Adjustment Bureau a nice sense of riding the border between science and thology.
However, that uneasiness about The Adjustment Bureau, the dodginess that really keeps it from being a near great story about pursuit of happiness and thumbing your nose at whatever fate has in store for you rears its head early on. David keeps running into Elise. The member of the Adjustment Bureau in charge of watching David, played by Anthony Mackie, accidentally falls asleep when he is is supposed to be keeping David on fate's course. It's an act of God or the highest power or whatever the ultimate being, the one who even controls the Adjustment Bureau in this film, is.
Ultimately what it truly feels like whether it actually is or not is deus ex machina, the belief that a screenwriter introduces something new into his or her story for the sole purpose of getting themselves out of that corner. We don't question anything that happens for no apparent reason. We can't at that point. If a car comes out of nowhere to run over one of the members of the Bureau so David and Elise can escape a chase, we have to accept it.
That in and of itself keeps The Adjustment Bureau from the perfection it could have aspired for. Because of Nolfi's introduction to the deus ex machina God device, there's a difficulty in believing David's actions have any bearing on the film at all. Even if he is defying the Bureau, the ones we are led to believe are in charge, there seems to be something else that is allowing him to get away with it. Not even that. It seems to be directing him back onto this course he gives up on for years at a time.
Nolfi could have given David more solidity in his own world. It certainly would have been aided by Damon, who turns in a remarkable performance. It would have been believable given the connection David and Elise - read Damon and Blunt - have. They seem perfect together. The characters have an incredibly strong bond, because the chemistry between the actors seems so natural. Any rebellion this man has against the control of the world to get her back is absolutely believable.
But shakiness in The Adjustment Bureau's screenplay doesn't end with deus ex machina. It's also present in the moments of levity, the almost broad comedy that is injected from scene to scene. It borderlines slapstick at times, out of place and jarring from any darkness the rest of the film wanted to introduce. Instead, the only moments of true darkness come in the form of Terence Stamp as a particular callous member of the Bureau. His moments near any real terror The Adjustment Bureau might offer even with the lightness in the surroundings with which he has to work.
But regardless of this unfounded flippancy, despite the acts of God Nolfi injects into his screenplay to get his characters out of sticky situations - this culminates in a conclusion that is difficult not to be seen as anything but a cop out - The Adjustment Bureau is a fine romance film. The science fiction elements are what creates the obstacle, but the lead characters and the relationship the film allows them to build is completely natural. The sci-fi side of the film isn't totally lost, either. As flimsy as that aspect of Nolfi's film is, it still raises even more questions, and that may be the best thing a story of this ilk can do. Fate, love, divinity: they're all topics that will be bandied about after seeing The Adjustment Bureau.
Ultimately, the film is a fine romance, an okay science fiction story, and a great conversation starter. Don't worry if the discussion gets to that proverbial corner. The hand of God might be right around the corner.
Jeremy's Rating: 7.5 out of 10