The Adjustment Bureau - movie review
Who's saying what
Working from source material provided by Philip K. Dick's similarly named short story "The Adjustment Team", The Adjustment Bureau is a paranoid conspiracy thriller by way of a romantic comedy. George Nolfi's blend of the two genres—and the inevitable rom-com redemption at the end of the film—means the paranoid conspiracy line of the narrative loses its nerve. It would have been far more interesting to push the conspiracy line to its limits and engaged a few of Dick’s wilder, amphetamine-fuelled ideas—like the dogs who work as Summoners for the conspirators. But, alas: Matt Damon.
The film opens with a very efficient montage that sets up David Norris (Matt Damon) as a young New York politician on the make. As he campaigns for a Senate seat, the tabloid media find dirt and throw his otherwise successful campaign off track. Just before delivering his concession speech on election night, he has a chance meeting with Elise (Emily Blunt), an impulsive and candid dancer. After months of being coddled by advisors, her refreshing candour about his outfit and his dedication to politics make him reconsider his scripted speech: he instead delivers a successful and off-the-cuff indictment of the dominant focus-group politics. After his annihilation in the polls, it’s this chance encounter and the speech it inspired that affords Norris renewed respect and another chance at the next Senate election. Norris is stuck in something of a holding pattern until the next campaign in three years, so he idly wonders where this dancer has got to—before another fluke meeting on a peak hour bus.
The adjustment bureau is monitoring all of this. It was they who were controlling the stories leaked to the media, wanting to keeping Norris from office: they have grand, presidential plans for him, but only if he stays to their course. They also want to keep him from Elise, who the plans consider to be an impediment to Norris' political success. An early slip-up means that Norris is one of the few outsiders aware of the team's work. But he faces being "reset" if he even hints to another soul that the team and its plans exist.
Even after he's "seen behind the curtain," Norris is a wily, determined guy, as his off-piste concession speech lets us know early on. He's fallen for Elise and won't let the team hold him from her, nor will he believe the bureau’s intentions are good. Once set up, the film riffs on this idea through to its end: Norris battles against his fate, against the documents prepared by the bureaucratic adjustment team; free will, chance and fate are its open questions, a British-accented lady the protagonist’s motivation.
It’s the swing between the two narrative concerns—love and free will—that sometimes falters. Nolfi hasn't worked with particularly brainy source material in the past. The Adjustment Bureau is his first director's credit, but his writing credits run to Ocean's Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum. The philosophical gruntwork in this one is all done by Philip K. Dick's story, and the extension of it to screen lacks some of Dick's drug-enthused inspiration. Aside from the (Dickian) metaphor of fate-as-bureaucracy that is the engine of the story, The Adjustment Bureau is very literal in its imagination. Doors swoosh open as the sharply dressed employees of the adjustment bureau make their way across New York, their portals between locations opening onto new and unexpected vistas, hanging there in the doorframe like trompe l'oeil. It’s a realist flick in the dominant Hollywood romantic-action style, caked with a little sci-fi frosting. But even this is recognisable and plausible to us: the bureau use live maps to track their subjects, on them people flash in orbs as if they were tracked by Google Maps on an iPad. The bureau all dress in 50s clothing—this is perhaps a nod to Dick’s era, or perhaps because it’s shorthand for “style” right now (to double the effect, John Slattery of Mad Men plays an adjustment bureau big-wig).
The film’s inevitable position alongside other "behind the curtain" films like The Matrix and The Truman Show makes Bureau feel a little ham-fisted in comparison. (Imagine if Neo had spent most of his time romancing Trinity, or, rather, dealt with The Matrix only so that he could romance Trinity. Wild.) This growing catalogue of films is worth considering: why so many films of this ilk? The superficial answer is that they’ve worked at the box office before, so studios will keep making them. A cynic might find that the most fitting answer here—how could the masses resist this confection, the endless lure of the rom-com and the current interest in conspiracy films? But this very appetite suggests something deeper.
Ordinarily we would claim someone was suffering from psychosis, if they claimed to have “answers” delivered to them by some agency or person that is only visible to them; if they suggested they knew of the secret workings of this world controlled from elsewhere. But these films suggest a certain taste for this sort of paranoiac understanding of our world today: the idea that there is an invisible power structure pulling the strings and ordering life.
The Adjustment Bureau is a film that, at once, acknowledges that such a thing could exist, but it counters that motivated, determined and lovelorn individuals could flout its hold on our existence. In that sense, the love that prompts action—Norris catches the same bus for years in order to find Elise again—is the key figure of the film, not the bureau of the title. The bureau slowly melts into the background—no longer what the film is really exploring but a kind of ambient working environment, a fact of life to be learned and adjusted to, in turn. The rugged romantic trumps the conspiracy. Norris is aided by an adjustment bureau worker turned good—the bureaucrat with the heart of gold. In this, it recalls The Lives of Others, another film where the formal rules of rational bureaucracy are defied by an operator who comes to respect his nominal target.
So, in the end, what makes the film enjoyable is the on-screen chemistry between Damon and Blunt. It’s easy to imagine that it was an intuitive sense of this at the time of production that gave the romance story an upper hand. Damon and Blunt give good performances when together, particularly in the early, flirtatious scenes where things feel nicely improvised. They're also fine in the individual roles, but the sparks are mostly there in their flirting: this is as the story would have it, where the artistic Blunt's wit and unpredictability opens up something warmer in Norris, the political machine man. It’s universally recognisable fare: love lost, love found, free will, fate. The film meanders between its two styles and sets of concerns, but it adds up to a solid piece of cinema entertainment with a few brain-tweaking moments of paranoia.
- Three stars
The Adjustment Bureau opens in cinemas on Thursday, March 3.
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