Friday, March 4, 2011

Movie Review: "The Adjustment Bureau"

An intriguing, smart and often silly rumination on fate, destiny and love, "The Adjustment Bureau" is a film that works in spite of itself.

When Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon) suffers a crushing defeat during election season, he's ready to throw in the towel. But a chance encounter in the men's bathroom with beguiling beauty Elise (Emily Blunt) reenergizes David and leaves him smitten. When he bumps into the woman on the bus months later, David tries to pursue her, but is surprised to stumble upon a gang of fedora-wearing men stopping his path.

These men, we quickly learn, are the Adjustment Bureau - a team of professionals working for the Chairman (aka Fate) to make sure people don't step out of line with their destiny. David is never supposed to see Elise again and warned about the consequences if he does - and the Adjustment Bureau has supernatural abilities to change minds, cause car accidents and do just about anything to ensure David and Elise are kept apart. But David, so sure of his feelings for this mysterious stranger, feels that the Bureau is wrong, and that he and Elise are supposed to be together.

The concept, based on a short story by Phillip K. Dick, is interesting. Who among us hasn't wondered whether a different decision in our life - a new route to work, a talk with a stranger - would have completely altered where we ended up? The issue of free will vs. determinism has fueled many films, some of them good and some of them bad.

"The Adjustment Bureau" leans a little more to the former, even as it struggles under the weight of its own silliness. The trouble with a film that so literally deals with issues of fate is that it risks sounding corny and self-serious. Lines like "if he kisses her ... a real kiss ... everything changes" may produce snickers from the audience, and the villains' bumbling throughout the film's first half may be intended to be humorous but comes across a bit clumsy.

The film works much better when it takes the time to go beyond its science fiction trappings and focus on the love story between David and Elise. Damon is one of this generation's most likeable male leads and he brings a real charisma to his role as a politician with a troubled past. He and Blunt have a terrific chemistry together, and their shared scenes are sweet, funny and romantic. The thing that makes the film work, despite some of the plot's clumsiness, is that the actors make the audience want to see the characters together.

Director George Nolfi finds a surer footing for the sci-fi elements in the film's second half, when Terrence Stamp is brought in as an agent assigned to finally shut David down. Stamp brings a sense of intimidation and menace to the film, raising the film's stakes from the earlier moments when David could easily outwit his pursuers. Anthony Mackie also has an interesting role as an agent who finds himself sympathizing with David's plight.

Despite its inherent silliness, "The Adjustment Bureau" is a mostly enjoyable thriller driven by an effective romance. It provokes questions - albeit surface ones - about matters of fate, destiny and sacrifice. It's not particularly deep, but it has a bit more to chew on that, say, the latest Jason Statham thrill ride. Only in its final act, when it devolves into a series of chase sequences and arrives at a limp denouement, does it begin to fly off the rails.

Dick's work has been the basis for a number of films, some great ("Blade Runner"), some good ("Minority Report") and some unspeakable bad ("Paycheck"). "The Adjustment Bureau" falls closer to the middle category - it's not a waste of time, but I wouldn't say it's your destiny to see it, either.

Article originally published in the Advisor and Source Newspapers.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.