Friday, March 11, 2011
The Adjustment Bureau
The Adjustment Bureau takes off like a jet plane and sputters to a halt like an old golf cart.
A flurry of quick cuts and excited patter from big-time newsmakers like Jon Stewart pumps up the volume in the bright, noisy opener, establishing David Norris (Matt Damon) as a latter-day Kennedy, poised to stride into political office in New York City.
The first downshifts come just a few minutes in, when David’s campaign is derailed. This is also the first time the narrative falters, asking us to believe that a single photo of David mooning someone in college is enough to brand him as unstatesmanlike. (Hmm — tell that to George W. Bush.) But the film finds its feet again when David bumps into Elise (Emily Blunt), the love of his life, in what may be the ultimate 21st-century meet-cute scene, revealing The Adjustment Bureau’s true identity as an enormously appealing love story with an intermittently intriguing subplot.
Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy devotes himself to looking for girl until he finds her. Nothing unusual there, except that this particular boy is shadowed by a squad of humorless men in ‘50s-style suits and fedoras (including a soulful but sorely underutilized Anthony Mackie, making the most of a one-note part). The men are supernatural messengers, presumably on a mission from God — though just who sent them is left unclear enough to leave room for speculation. Could it be Satan? Or, worse, Andy Cohen, fishing for another Bravo reality show?
They may look like Secret Service agents, but these cold bureaucrats aren’t here to protect David. Their mission is to make sure he fulfills his assigned fate, regardless of what it may cost him. And, in one of the twists that survive from the Philip K. Dick short story the movie is loosely based on, they can “adjust” his actions and the actions of the people around him to nudge things in the right direction. That notions is one of the film’s most original touches, and it may linger for a few days, letting you pretend that dropped a cell phone call or a spilled coffee is not a minor annoyance but a carefully executed piece of some grand master plan.
David’s G-man-like guardian angels are dogging him so closely because he’s destined for greatness — but only, they insist, if he forgets about Elise. She may look like a lissome modern dancer, but she’s really just a big boulder in his path.
But David refuses to believe that something that feels so right could be wrong. Evading the men from the bureau, first to find Elise and then to keep them from spiriting her away, Damon is constantly on the move, dodging, weaving, and flat-out running almost as much as he did in the Bourne movies.
We’re right there with him, since he and Blunt make a magnetic couple. Their brisk patter is nicely written, and so well delivered that the mock sparring between this evenly matched, mutually delighted pair sometimes approaches the fizzy perfection of a classic screwball comedy. Too bad we don’t get more of it. Instead, the last third or so of the movie turns into an extended chase scene, so the two wind up spending more time running for their emotional lives than they do basking in the pleasure of each other’s company.
At least the settings are nicely chosen, showing us rarely seen sides of this obsessively photographed city. And it’s fun to watch them fold into each other in unpredictable ways, as the men from the adjustment bureau wind their own way through Manhattan like the Pevensie kids entering Narnia, every door they open leading to a whole new neighborhood.
The settings also externalize the change in David’s life as he moves from the crowded world of politics to his intimate relationship with Elise. The two are always finding wide-open spaces in the middle of the city, including the majestic reading room of the main branch of the library, a deserted Yankee Stadium, and a dockside warehouse-turned-dance hall in Brooklyn.
An annoyingly intrusive soundtrack and too much Inception-style talk about the bureau’s rules and regulations, dressed up with some paper-thin philosophizing about free will and our brutality as a species, slow things down. Then comes that too-long chase, which culminates in an unlikely happy ending that brings the whole thing to a screeching halt.
Still, here’s more to enjoy in this uneven contraption than in just about any of the well-oiled machines rolling off the Hollywood assembly line this season.
Written for TimeOFF