When I saw it back in March, The Adjustment Bureau was an early contender for my year-end favorites list. Still is, as of today’s writing. It’s a smart, urgent, thoughtful film, adapted from a Philip K. Dick short story by writer-director George Nolfi, and executed with style and briskness, with more than two excellent lead performances.
Now don’t ruin my buzz, please — I see where the flaws are. Allow me to say some nice things about a film that, in a shockingly underachieving year for cinema thus far, still straps on its waxy wings and starts flapping on an unlikely flight towards the sun.
In The Adjustment Bureau, Matt Damon plays a liberal-Hollywood-dream of a young politician, whose upward trajectory is interrupted by a chance meeting with a sarcastic, enchanting ballerina (Emily Blunt). Their immediate and impressive chemistry delays his daily momentum enough that he gets to a meeting late, where he discovers some mysterious men in his office, doing something unplaceably mysterious. That’s where the Philip K. Dick-ness of the whole premise comes into play. The mysterious men are agents of the titular bureau, and Damon’s political potential is a major part of their master plan. When Damon meets Blunt, he derails that master plan, which puts them both on the radar of the bureau and on the run, racing desperately to find out whatever the hell.
I doubt I’m ruining much at this point when I insinuate that there’s more going on here than science fiction. It can only be considered as such if you are one who counts ‘theology’ as an ‘-ology.’ The main issue with The Adjustment Bureau is that the movie can’t answer the questions it asks. That’s because probably no movie can. But I do love the fact that those questions were raised, because that means that this isn’t the movie that was sold to me.
Really, “Bourne Meets Inception!” or Mad Men Meets Blade Runner! would have been perfectly fine high-concepts. But The Adjustment Bureau is concerned with the highest of earthly high-concepts. It takes the faith-versus-fate conundrum that Lost wrestled with for so long (before being forced to choose) and swaps out “faith” with “human emotion.” Unsurprisingly, this movie ends up coming down pretty clearly on one side as well, but it’s a Hollywood movie, it had to. We have the heartland to consider. In that light, the impressive achievement of The Adjustment Bureau is how long it’s able to hold out.
Equally impressive is how flawlessly Matt Damon and Emily Blunt manage to illustrate their spontaneous relationship. Movies are built on the notion of compressed time, the notion that two people can fall in the deepest love within moments of their first meeting. If the actors can’t sell that notion, the romance falls flat because there’s no emotional investment for the audience. To be fair to the legions of failed movie romances, it’s not exactly easy to do. Damon and Blunt made it make sense to me. I really did care about whether or not these two characters would connect, and re-connect. Their convincing portrayal reminded me that I can relate to the idea of meeting the right person at the right time (or the wrong time), and how whether or not it IS the right time can have an actual tangible effect on history itself. (Believe me, I can tell you stories. Not many, but a few good ones.)
That’s the chassis that the movie needs to work properly; the superlative work by Damon and Blunt is what allows the emotional machine to run. The rest is all high-end production value: evocatively-picked New York City locations, cinematography by John Toll (The Thin Red Line), smart set design in the later mind-bending sections, and some truly solid supporting performances by Anthony Mackie, Michael Kelly, John Slattery, and Terence Stamp, who still manages to play a dapper, chilly, severe villain, even after all these years of greatness. For political verisimilitude (and probably a sign of Matt Damon’s well-earned real-world cachet), there are color cameos by the likes of Jon Stewart, Chuck Scarborough, and His Honor, Michael Bloomberg. None of those cameos distract; they’re gone from memory quickly enough because the story sweeps up your attention so proficiently. The chases in this movie are suspenseful and engaging and exciting and now that I think of it, I don’t think there’s a single gun drawn during the entire movie. That’s something, isn’t it?
It’s well-done all around, a real tight ship. In the end, I guess that’s what undoes the movie in that crucial difference between high-quality, and perfection. A movie with the impressive courage to engage these themes probably should have been forced to go that much further, and to allow some more ambiguity to seep in around its edges. The Adjustment Bureau, by story’s end, is resolved a little too neatly to have the philosophical resonance that it might have had. There aren’t answers yet to the questions raised by The Adjustment Bureau. That the movie provides a few actually manages to cheapen it a little. This is probably what happens when storytellers are constrained by the demands of a marketplace and an audience that want (and in some cases need) a story to serve their own needs. Or maybe this is exactly how the filmmakers wanted it. Either way, this is a good movie that might have been a great one. It isn’t, but I’m still damn glad I saw it.