Monday, March 14, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi, 2011)

No science fiction writer has had as many of his works adapted for film as Philip K. Dick. It’s unfortunate for his legacy, and the movie going public that the majority of those films have been terrible. The Adjustment Bureau is the of the great sci-fi visionaries works to make it to the big screen, and although it’s certainly lacking in the kind of ambition that often made Dick’s work so wonderful, this is a fun movie. It’s not reinventing the wheel, and it’s not going to set the world on fire becoming a cultural phenomenon, but it succeeds at the goals it sets out for itself more than it fails.

David Norris is a political wonder boy. The youngest person ever elected to the House of Representatives, he’s now running for the Senate. It seems he’s destined to win, until a newspaper releases photos of him making a drunken ass out of himself at a college reunion by mooning some old frat brothers. On the night of the election, when it becomes clear he’s going to lose very badly, basically a landslide, he goes to write his concession speech. He wanders into a secluded men’s bathroom in the hotel where his campaign is headquartered for the evening, and begins the unenviable task, after loudly asking if anyone else is in there. Laboriously trudging through his work, Norris is finally finishing his speech when a young woman comes out of one of the stalls. And this is how David Norris meets Elise Sellas, throwing the trajectory of both of their into a tailspin, altering both of their destinies.

And in short, that’s what this film is about, fighting one’s destiny. The central plot element surrounds the idea that destiny is controlled, and that it’s controlled by The Adjustment Bureau. When your life deviates or seems as if it might deviate from the plan it is supposed to follow, the films suggests it’s this shadowy group of semi-supernatural folks who step in to set it back on the path that’s been laid out for you. David Norris and Elise Sellas are not supposed to be together. Unfortunately, David Norris isn’t interested in going along with that plan.
George Nolfi manages to keep it light on the metaphysics, which is all for the best in this case. There’s a quasi-religious aspect of the story that if more heavily laid on would have become the kind of sluggish exercise in tedious exposition that good science fiction literature is often saddled with when made into film. This isn’t a film that needs to have all of this too heavily explained and I think Nolfi in both his screenplay and his directing is smart enough to tread lightly in that territory. He explains what he absolutely has to, when he absolutely has to, and when explanation isn’t necessary, he sticks with the films real assets, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt.

Matt Damon’s real talent is that it’s extremely easy to relate to him. He brings that talent to this film as well as he has any other before it. Even while playing the new golden boy of American politics, it’s easy to believe him, to relate to him, and eventually to sympathize with him and root for him. Very few people will ever actually experience the kind of precipitous rise and deflation that Damon’s character does in the film, but we’re with him the entire way, because of his extremely affable and sympathetic demeanor.

Matt Damon’s talents would be completely wasted without someone we believe his character would be able to develop the kind of connection that sets the narrative in motion. Emily Blunt's character could have been just another in a line of female characters that's already too long. Essentially, she's a grown up Manic Pixie Dream Girl who has matured and developed enough discipline to have a successful dance career. She could have ended up coming off very much like Kate Winslet's character in Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind or Natalie Portman's character from Garden State. Instead, her character comes across as a confident, self possessed young woman with a good sense of humor and straightforward enough manner that it's easy to believe Damon's character would fall hard for her, especially under the circumstances they meet under. This is the first time I can remember Blunt getting the opportunity to play a modern woman in a world that resembles our own, and she's knocks it out of the park. There isn't much about this film that could be called special, except for her performance. Emily Blunt is a bonafide movie star at this point, but even as this film isn't going to shake the world up, I'd be willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that this performance puts her in the running for roles directors wouldn't have considered her for before they got a look at her work in this film.

The Adjustment Bureau is a fun film, built on the foundation designed by one of science fictions greatest writers. It's smart enough outline the philosophical underpinnings of the source material, but also smart enough to know that in a film meant for a mass audience, the dangers of collapse are all too great if those underpinnings are too deeply mined. The real story here, in both the films narrative and in looking at what in the film is worth giving time to, is the chemistry between Damon and Blunt, and ultimately, Blunt's ability to take a role that wasn't particularly well fleshed out and to breath life, sincerity and spontaneity into it. The Adjustment Bureau is a fun date movie, with good performances and there are worse ways to waste two hours, but there are better ways as well. I don't feel like the film was a waste of my time, by any means, but if given the choice between seeing this again or watching any number of other films I've seen before, I wouldn't choose this one.

Fandango has tickets to local showings across the country.

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