Thursday, June 20, 2013

Reviewing the Film and the Philosophy of The Adjustment Bureau

"All I Have Are the Choices I Make, and I Choose Her." 

Make no mistake, The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon, and Emily Blunt, is a love story. That being said, the Science Fiction element adds an interesting layer of fantasy to this tragic romance between two lovers, who, while fated to be together, destiny interferes to keep them apart. Mad Men's John Slattery and Terrence Stamp also star in this twisted tale of love, humor, fate, destiny, and freewill. A pleasant surprise is the portrayal of Adjustment Bureau Team member 'Harry' as portrayed by Anthony Mackie (Notorious). Mackie gives a human feeling to the film and acts not only as a guide for David Norris in navigating this world, but also acts as a conscience for this familiar but altered world. The Adjustment Bureau is a fast paced, but thoughtful film, and full of plot holes if you think about them too hard, so don't. Writer and Director George Nolfi really had to work hard to take the 1954 original short story by Phillip K. Dick (Blade Runner, Minority Report) and turn it into a story and film that would have some relevance to a modern 21st century audience. The Adjustment Bureau is PG-13 and makes for a great matinee movie with a dinner afterwards allowing the two of you a chance to discuss all the 'what ifs' in your own lives.

The concept taken from the original Philip K. Dick story is simple and straight forward. A bureau or team 'adjusts' situations to control the lives and destinies of people. This manipulation affects others who in turn affect others causing a ripple effect in humanity's direction away from doomsday. The team or bureau operates literally below the surface, from the sewers and behind magical doors that if turned clockwise opens onto various places within the confines of New York City. The film starts out in the last days of Congressman David Norris's (Damon) campaign for a New York Senate seat. Portrayed as a Young Turk, a man of the people, a younger more in touch candidate, Norris is impulsive and prone to lack good judgment where some of his actions during the campaign are concerned. After mooning some folks during his high school reunion, Norris's lead in the polls slips badly, costing him the Senate race. On the eve of his defeat, supposedly alone in the bathroom of his campaign headquarters, Norris writes his concession speech aloud. Out of one of the stalls steps the beautiful and lithe Elise (Blunt), who, after crashing a wedding, is hiding out from hotel security. The chemistry ignites and the two hit it off and their encounter ends with a passionate kiss before they go their separate ways. While giving the intended speech to his followers, Norris deviates from it and with thoughts of Elise still on his mind, he is inspired to give a different, more heartfelt and captivating speech that ensures a solid framework for his next attempt to seek a seat in the Senate.



We meet the 'Adjustment Team,' a throwback to the days of film noir, men in suits, ties and fedoras, who watch the developments of certain key players in the world. Instead of using a stylized GPS that tracks a person's predestined actions and events in their life, the team, instead, have ordinary looking books that show the planned path of an individual and the deviated path as well. Questions abound as to the origin of the Adjustment Bureau, and what kind of creatures they are. They look human, and seem fallible, as we see presently, when a team member is supposed to cause Norris to spill his coffee while crossing by the Central Park on the way to catch a bus. Norris's weary handler, Harry (Mackie), falls asleep and misses his opportunity to cause the coffee spill and instead Norris makes the bus and indeed runs into Elise again. The two resume where they left off with casual flirting and Norris taking advantage of a delayed coffee spill, to ask Elise for her phone number. Harry reports his inability to keep the two from meeting again which allows the two to form a slightly deeper bond with each other. The team assigned to watch over David Norris is led by a dapper character by the name of Richardson, who is played by John Slattery of Mad Men fame. Arriving at his new job, Norris catches the Adjustment Team pulling a Men in Black like mind adjustment on his associate and campaign manager Charlie Traynor (Michael Kelly). As Norris runs around the office building in an attempt to escape from the adjustment team members, scenes from the Matrix come to mind. Eventually Norris is captured and taken to what looks to be a deserted underground parking lot where Richardson decides what to do with our errant Congressman. Realizing the deep psychological drive that Norris has for seeking the truth, Richardson decides on leveling with him and telling him who they are and what their purpose is, and warning him not to be with Elise ever again, and not to divulge who they are. Richardson burns Elise's phone number and that they say, is the end of that.




Obviously that is not the end. David Norris is in fact a passionate, obsessive character, while Elise also is as passionate about her dreams; however she is spontaneous, witty, and fun. What the audience finds is that The Adjustment Bureau has the makings of a good tragic love story where the main characters, should be together, are pulled apart by what usually is called bad luck, or bad timing, is in fact The Adjustment Bureau. Although Damon and Blunt are convincing in their portrayal of their characters, and the chemistry between them as leading romantic characters is excellent, there is something missing that lowers the intensity of their love for each other that falls short of the kind that would remind one of Dom and Mal or Jack and Rose of Inception and Titanic, respectively. This one thing keeps The Adjustment Bureau from being a truly great film.

Philosophically, the film questions the concept of 'Free Will,' and as Terrance Stamp says in the film, 'we humans have the 'illusion of free will.' Free will was a good idea that the bureau allowed humanity to try on a few occasions, however, after the Dark Ages and bringing to world to the brink of destruction during the Cuban Missile crisis, the Bureau felt it was better for them to help humans align their fate better. Another concept that writer/director Nolfi deals with is, that love conquers all. In real life it doesn't, but this is the movies. An obvious flaw in the story is the nature of the Bureau, are they supernatural? Can anyone join the Bureau? We do know that they need to sleep. Harry falls asleep, missing his chance to distract Norris with the spilt coffee. They swear and act frustrated when plans fall apart. Are they aliens? The bureau members sport some nifty memory adjustor gadgets. They can be duplicitous, as we see how Harry lends aide to the Damon and Blunt when the chips are down. They claim to read minds, but in fact can and will lie if the need arises. Another question that comes to mind is the infallibility of a higher being. If this higher order being is fallible then they are not god, then are they aliens? Overall, if mankind needs adjusting, are these truly the beings that should be doing the adjusting. Just remember, it is just a movie.




Nolfi and Editor Jay Rabinowitz keep The Adjustment Bureau moving along with even cutting and smooth camera shots. No 'Bourne Identity' docu-style filmmaking here. No car chases worth mentioning however, there are quite a few scenes of Matt Damon running around New York City while being chased by agents in motorcycle helmets. Musically, the soundtrack is not memorable, but does keep the film flowing. Ali Dee, who worked on the 'Speed Racer' soundtrack and Thomas Newman who worked on Jarhead and the Wall-E soundtracks contribute to The Adjustment Bureau, with songs and music that blend effortlessly with the action and dialog. Also included is a track by Sarah Vaughan with a remixed version of her song Fever. Richard Ashcroft's Are You Ready, rounds out a soundtrack that, although grooves and adds to the film, doesn't strike any emotional chords with the audience, which in turn would move The Adjustment Bureau, to a higher level of art.

The chemistry between Damon and Blunt works well on screen. Matt Damon portrays a young (early forties), politician who is on the fast track to the White House. Blunt plays the ballerina on the verge of fame well -- without the weirdness that Natalie Portman's 'Black Swan' character portrays while pursuing her craft obsessively. What is intriguing about these two, and subsequently to the storyline, is that if David and Elise are happy with each other to the point that they settle for mediocrity, why is that wrong? We pursue our dreams in search of something to fill a void in our lives, and to do so successfully, especially the lofty goals and desires, one needs to do so without distraction and with a great compulsion. However, if instead you find that happiness by being with that certain someone, and for that reason you trade lofty ideas for happiness, is that wrong too? Does The Adjustment Bureau take the easy way out and settle for a feel good film, rather than go for the loftier goal of creating a film that should be considered a genuine piece of art? The final message that Director George Nolfi wants to leave us with is: Life is too short to not be with the one you truly love and who makes you happy.

Movie Data

Genre: Romance, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Year: 2011
Staring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Michael Kelly, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery
Director: George Nolfi
Producer(s): Bill Carraro, Michael Hackett, Chris Moore, George Nolfi
Writer: George Nolfi, Philip K. Dick
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: 3/4/2011

Originally published 3/6/2011 on Yahoo! Voices