The Adjustment Bureau


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

The Adjustment Bureau
"There's a lot of good work here, decent performances from Blunt, Damon and Mackie, some gorgeous locations and some neat production design, but it doesn't quite work."

Based on a Philip K Dick short story, this is a tale of love conquering all, of the triumph of free will over fate, of the individual's power over their own destiny. Or, at least, it's trying to be, but it appears to have gotten itself into a muddle that it can't escape from.

It starts with its scheduling - this is arguably the first post-Inception thriller that tends to the metaphysical, and the posters and advertising won't let you forget it. They should, however, because this film suffers in comparison. It doesn't feel as sure, and despite its origins within the fountain of paranoid creativity that gave us Blade Runner and Minority Report and Cadbury, The Beaver Who Lacked, it's lacking in inventiveness. The rest is ultimately down to writer and director George Nolfi.

Copy picture

He's written a fair few things before, but this is his debut at the helm. He's worked with Matt Damon previously, scripting The Bourne Ultimatum and the eminently disposable Ocean's Twelve. Behind the camera he keeps a close eye on a number of effects shots, using a staggering variety of New York locations to good effect, and managing the whole 'walk in one door, come out another' thing much better than the Wachowskis did in The Matrix Reloaded.

Where it falls down is its reliance on cliche, a plot driven by an unimpeachable love that two people leave lying for years, and by wasting Terence Stamp as badly as Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.

Matt Damon is good, not stretching himself as Brooklyn bad-boy politician David Norris. In stump speeches, an appearance with real life New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and not one but two appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, he's pretty convincing. He's meant to be a Kennedy-esque inspiring politician and he's got enough innate charisma to mean that's not unbelievable.

He meets Emily Blunt's Elise Sellas on a bus. She's good, a dancer, managing, along with Damon, to achieve that whole 'love at first sight' thing. Unfortunately, he wasn't meant to meet her, and the fact that he does is part of what sets the whole film in motion.

Or, rather, jars the whole film off track. The Adjustment Bureau, you see, are there to ensure that events occur 'just as planned'. They've got these nifty little tomes, "planbooks", that incomprehensibly outline how someone's life will turn out. Note should be made of how well integrated the planbooks are, with a pretty distinctive design by industry veteran J John Corbett, title sequence designer and animator extraordinaire.

Less well judged are those wielding them. In the original short story, one of The Adjustment Bureau misses his cue because he is asleep, and the world behind the curtain is revealed. In the story it's a dog who barks at the wrong time and summons an Insurance Agent rather than A Friend With A Motorcar. Here, it's black actor Anthony Mackie, who uses telekinesis to spill Norris' coffee at the wrong time, so he meets the love of his life rather than going back to change his shirt.

In fairness, you probably wouldn't know that if you hadn't just been told. That said, you'd still see Harry Mitchell as a 'magical negro', appearing from nowhere to solve the white protagonists' problems before disappearing again. That's not all that's regressive, lacking in subtlety or awareness.

There's one female character, admittedly with star billing, but beyond a fiance and watching Norris watch her dancing there's nothing about her, or her life. She's justifiably annoyed that Norris pledged undying troth twice, disappearing with no further contact subsequently. It would seem that it's the machinations of the Adjustment Bureau that keep them apart, primarily in the form of Richardson.

He's the early bad guy, played by John Slattery and possibly cast because his role in Mad Men means he's used to acting while wearing a hat. He's good, catching the right tone between the bureaucratic zeal and banality of evil. He's got his henchmen, his antagonism with Harry, his sudden realisation and, come the moment, being replaced by a scarier guard dog.

Terence Stamp is he, introduced by a clumsy bit of exposition; "I heard that when he was a field agent his nickname was 'The Hammer'". It's that, as much as anything else, that brings into question the names of the Bureau staff - if they're angels, or 'something like that', answering to the plans of the mysterious Chairman, why do they have patronymics? Call them Wright, or Carpenter, or Plummer, and make it a character trait that we see, and then when Terence Stamp is introduced as "Butcher" or "Slaughter" we'd have the chance to be afraid.

That's just one of those places where a dash more inventiveness might have helped the film. In plotting terms it doesn't get much better, resorting to something that's indistinguishable from deus ex machina. The cast is overwhelmingly male, indeed, one finds oneself trying to spot women among the staff of the Adjustment Bureau when we see their labyrinthine offices, but to no avail. It gets near to raising interesting questions about free will and predetermination that Blade Runner handled, questions about forecasting the future that were dealt with in Minority Report, but largely succeeds only in raising questions about the film-making process.

It's been made with the extensive co-operation of New York City, but it doesn't go anywhere near Ground Zero, and for all the magical doors, their destinations only seem to go as far as Staten Island. Still, it's a beautiful place, and it's always nice to see films shot where they're set rather than on soundstages or in Toronto. The score is good, too, provided by Thomas Newman who did Wall-E and The Shawshank Redemption, and the soundtrack isn't bad either, featuring the former frontman of Brit-rockers The Verve.

There's a lot of good work here, decent performances from Blunt, Damon and Mackie, some gorgeous locations and some neat production design, but it doesn't quite work. It's enjoyable enough, entertaining too, and probably worth seeing, but The Adjustment Bureau could really have done with some tweaks.

Reviewed on: 01 Mar 2011
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The Adjustment Bureau packshot
When a man meets a beautiful woman for the second time, the plans the mysterious Adjustment Bureau have for his life go awry.
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Director: George Nolfi

Writer: George Nolfi, based on the short story The Adjustment Team by Philip K Dick

Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Terence Stamp, John Slattery, Anthony Mackie, Lisa Thoreson, Jon Stewart

Year: 2011

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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