Friday March 4, 2011 at the AMC Boston Common 19 theater.
Adapted & Directed by George Nolfi, starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery and Terrence Stamp.
A few years ago my screenwriter buddy Evan pointed out how rare it is for any Hollywood studio movie to not included a love story. He argued this applied to all Hollywood movies not merely to romances and romantic comedies. The devil’s advocate nature of Evan’s and my friendship demanded that I try to disprove his theory. Guess what? He was right, and he knows I hate to admit that he’s right, but there it is. Sure, exceptions exist, but few enough that they prove the rule. With the realization of how obviously right Evan was came the realization of how lazily constructed most of these near sub-plot love stories are, how little they have to say about love, and what a redundant part of the overall story they have become. So few romantic comedies manage to be romantic and comedic at all let alone simultaneously. So few half-conceived adventures, westerns, mysteries, fantasies or standard dramas are made any more memorable by the same tired opposites attract situation blossoming off in one corner of the story.
THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is no exception to Evan’s rule, but with an enigmatic romance deep in the core of the story, it is a luminous exception to the movies I dismiss within Evan’s rule. The film’s engine comes from Philip K. Dick’s short story ADJUSTMENT TEAM, published in 1954 in Orbit Science Fiction, one of the pulp magazine harbingers of THE TWILIGHT ZONE and THE OUTER LIMITS. Dick’s story concerns a real estate investor named Ed Fletcher who accidentally discovers a clandestine group capable of pausing and altering reality, then restarting it, and sending the lives of certain people in different directions. Readers follow Fletcher for about twelve hours in one day. Nolfi’s film follows a New York Congressman named David Norris (Damon) for nearly four years before, during and after an encounter similar to Fletcher’s. As previously discussed we could expect the film to attach a boy meets girl situation to help fill out the extra time the audience will spend with Norris. What is unexpected is that THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU contains the most satisfying science fiction love story since at least THE ABYSS, possibly since Cronenberg remade THE FLY.
We first meet Norris as an incumbent running for reelection. On the eve of the election, Norris briefly meets Elise (Blunt), a party-crashing dancer who encourages and inspires him before rushing away. Norris spends the next few years pondering his next political move, and regretting not getting Elise’s last name, while the Adjustment Bureau conspires to keep them from ever meeting again. The challenge to Norris is that a network of unknown size and resources appears whenever he comes close to finding Elise. The challenge to the Bureau is that Norris and Elise have reached and shaken each other during their chance encounter far more deeply that the smitten horniness that suffices in most big studio thrillers.
The Bureau operates under a check and balance system that prevents them from controlling our lives completely, leaving not only the opportunity for coincidence, but the possibility of fate. A great strength of THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU in my estimation, and a great flaw in the opinion of many, is that it raises more questions than it answers. How one feels about destiny versus free will, whether one prefers the search that comes from doubt or the comfort of blind faith, and if one has ever wrestled with squaring the existence of a higher power with the fact that horrible events befall innocent people; these are among the moral and philosophical dilemmas confronted by the Bureau should they fail to keep Norris and Elise apart.
First time director George Nolfi manages to expand Dick’s conundrum into a cosmic puzzle without turning preachy, never losing sight of the fact that the audience came to root for Norris and Elise, not to sit on a beach and play chess against one of the Bureau’s hat sporting agents. An accomplished screenwriter for most of the last decade, Nolfi resists the writer-director’s trap of explaining everything through dialogue. I’m sure I will spot more hidden photographic gems on future viewings but for now I am impressed by a scene where Norris first meets Bureau honcho Thompson (Stamp). The camera is medium close on Damon, with Stamp appearing to materialize out of the vapor, a moment created with no more elaborate a special effect than a slow refocus. This image tells us something mysterious about the Bureau in general and Thompson in particular that is far more haunting than if it were attempted with a monologue.
Nolfi does a fine job of creating a dimensional playing field with the New York of a public figure, either by random chance of Norris’s eluding the Bureau, or the calculated appearance schedule of a political candidate. We follow Norris through locations intimate enough to be recognized by a local constituent like his after work pub, the Hilltop Hanover farm, the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and a meatpacking district nightclub where strangers slap him on the back and gush “I voted for you!” We also follow him to Yankee Stadium, Liberty Island, and a rooftop in the East 40’s with an exquisite view of Central Park. These locations, some vaguely familiar others immediately recognizable to movie fans all over the world even if they’ve never been to New York, assume a greater meaning akin to the larger world of Berlin in WINGS OF DESIRE.
For the past generation or two Hollywood has been the prime suspect in both the dumbing down and the spiritual vacancy of America. I have disputed this at every opportunity, armed with a list of movie titles many people have never heard of, and most did not buy a ticket to see. THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU was produced by one of the biggest film and television companies in the world, NBC/Universal, and features both veteran and emerging actors supporting one of the top grossing movie stars alive. It will be interesting to see if this film will be embraced by those searching for something new and unique from Hollywood as was THE FLY, or if it will suffer the fate of THE ABYSS and once again confirm that studios must pander to the least introspective or imaginative among us to keep the red ink off their balance sheets.