I’m not a particularly paranoid person, but there are times that I can be a bit suspicious about coincidences or “kismet”, things that are almost impossibly unlikely to have happened as they did. I’m not alone: sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick made a career out of asking “what’s behind the scenes” in a vast body of disturbing and thought-provoking stories, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Next and Paycheck. Add The Adjustment Bureau to this list, with the story adapted to the big screen by director George Nolfi.
David Norris (Matt Damon) is a young go-getter New York politician who has a chance encounter with the quirky, engaging Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), a ballerina who captures his attention immediately. But strange forces are at work and Norris is assaulted and wakes up in a warehouse, surrounded by mysterious dark-suited men in fedoras. Their leader is Richardson (John Slattery), who explains to Norris that there’s a Plan, as mapped in their constantly changing notebooks, and that he cannot be with Elise in The Plan.
The film transforms from a romance into an action film once the watchers show up, and while fate keeps causing Norris to bump into Sellas, it becomes clear that if he’s going to try to exercise free will and pursue her, he’s going to do so at the risk of the Bureau wiping his memories to avoid dangerous ripples to The Plan. Offsetting the mysterious and sinister watchers is Harry (Anthony Mackie), who sympathizes with Norris and helps him learn what’s going on and how to wrest back control of his own fate.
I found The Adjustment Bureau an interesting and thought-provoking thriller, rather slow to get started but very worth watching. Blunt is splendid in her role as a modern dancer confused by all that’s going on and I found Harry a particularly sympathetic character, a man torn between his duty to the Bureau and his emotional connection with Norris. In an age where so many science fiction films are about alien invasions or other violent stories, it was a pleasure to have a more cerebral film with snappy dialog and a good cinematic payoff at the end.
There’s a retro feel to The Adjustment Bureau that has just as much to do with the cinematography of John Toll as set design and the Mad Men-esque costumes of the mysterious Bureau. At times I wished that they’d filmed it all in black & white. Contemporary Manhattan and the outer boroughs have a timelessness to them that is mirrored in our gradual understanding of just who the watchers are and what The Plan is.
In a subtle but provocative moment, Norris responds to Harry’s assurance that the Bureau wasn’t responsible for the death of his mother by asking if it was just random chance. Harry declines to answer, one of the few glimpses of an even deeper story underneath the romantic chase film that made it to the big screen.
Damon seems to have made a career out of specializing in the “strong, quiet type”, from his splendid work in the Bourne trilogy to Good Will Hunting, The Brothers Grimm and Invictus. He is similarly bland in this film, but it’s more than offset by Blunt’s nuanced performance. She has the anger, the hurt, the passion of an artist who is thrown into a situation she doesn’t understand with a man who simultaneously confesses his love for her and pushes her away.
David Norris (Matt Damon) and Elisa Sellas (Emily Blunt) run away from The Adjustment Bureau
When Norris goes too far off plan in his pursuit of Sellas, the Bureau calls in the fixer, Thompson (Terence Stamp), who exudes a dangerous level of control, warning Norris that the consequences for his pursuit are great, both for him and for Sellas. Given the spiritual role of the Bureau, Thompson’s presence again invokes the same subtle question of good versus evil and the consequences of invoking evil for good intention.
The use of contemporary TV and media personalities in the film to establish verisimilitude works quite well, including a short commentary from James Carville and Mary Matalin after Norris loses an election bid, and an amusing interview by Jon Stewart when he relaunches his Senatorial campaign later in the film. Pay attention: Betty Liu, Daniel Bazile and Michael Bloomberg all show up too. Blurring the line between fiction and our everyday world can backfire, but in this case it works well.
Ultimately, The Adjustment Bureau is a delightfully paranoid love story with a retro sci-fi feel, a film that has a polished, sophisticated feel to it and that will also appeal to non-sci-fi fans. It’s also George Nolfi’s first directorial outing. Well done! I enjoyed the movie and recommend you check it out.