George Nolfi’s directorial debut delivers a lot in terms of acting, little in terms of innovation, and demonstrates that at least he knows how to put together a movie. The Adjustment Bureau, supported by a solid cast, flows with little bumps but leaves its major weakness for the finale.
Matt Damon, who has given a string of good performances lately, doesn’t disappoint in his role of David Norris, a politician running for Senate. Watching him are the agents of the Adjustment Bureau, the people who make sure things run according to plan. They have monitored Mankind since its dawn and have the mission of taking it to a brighter future. David matters to them because his path through life can lead to great improvements. Unfortunately they fail to make a small adjustment in his life and he meets a ballerina called Elise (Emily Blunt). It seems that by being with her, David will never feel the need to fill the emptiness of his life with politics and so she must be removed so he can pursue his career. But David, who discovers their existence almost by chance, is determined to fight the bureaucratic embodiment of fate to be with the woman of his dreams.
As I weigh the good and the bad in this movie I’m left convinced that there is more to enjoy about it than there is to complain about it. But sadly complaints exist. Let’s start with the agents. First of all I love the fact that the AB isn’t the typical super-secret omnipotent organization. The agents are blunderers like your average public functionary; they’re not good with improvisation (too used to rules and rigid plans), and they’re overworked. If Richardson (John Slattery) is to be believed, they’re paid. But they’re probably underpaid. They’re just guys doing their job and it shows in their personalities.
But the agents suffer from what afflicts typical super-powerful bad guys: vaguely-defined powers. They can freeze people in time, but they never use that on David once in the movie. They have telekinetic powers but they never make much use of that either. And those fedoras they use? Knock them off and you depower the agent. Incidentally, one of the most hilarious scenes in the movie is when David gets hold of one of those magic fedoras. “Sir, he has a hat!” cries a panicked agent. This movie is not without its delightful levity.
Although the screenplay is weak when it comes to defining the agents’ powers, it’s surprisingly strong during the seduction/flirtation scenes between Damon and Blunt. The lines the two leads exchange overflow with wit, charm and tenderness, and convince the viewer that their love truly is special and worth challenging the power of fate for.
The rest of the cast delivers solid performances: Michael Kelly; Anthony Mackie who plays Harry, an agent who goes rogue to help Damon’s character; Slattery, who brings some deadpan humour to the movie; and Terence Stamp, who plays Thompson, the main antagonist, the agent who’s called when all other agents fail.
The movie is technically good. It’s worth noting that the director of cinematography in charge is John Toll, whose past credits include The Thin Red Line and Braveheart. The movie is well shot and possesses stylistic coherence. I guess at some point someone must have asked: how do we transmit the idea of the vastness of an omnipresent organisation monitoring the whole world? Of one single man fighting it? The movie is mostly shot in widescreen and vertical lines (the gigantic headquarters of the AB in Manhattan), and most scenes take place in huge, long, empty halls and corridors. There’s a feeling of magnitude in the movie, a feeling that Mankind is very small thing and that something powerful looms over it.
The special effects and editing also do a fine job of keeping the movie fast-paced and exciting. One of the many powers the agents have is their ability to teleport through doors. Imagine you open a public bathroom door and you end up inside a football stadium. The agents use this power to move faster than other people and it’s arguably the most ostentatious display of visual effects in the movie. Otherwise the movie is very subdued.
Much has been made of the conflict between free will and predetermination life in the movie. That’s the philosophical question that holds it together. But I personally found something more interesting to chew on. There’s a dialogue between Thompson and David about the AB existing to lead Mankind to a better future. When they stepped down during the apogee of the Roman Empire we had the Dark Ages. After the AB stepped down again in 1910, we had WWI, WII, the Holocaust, you get the picture. Without them we’re screwed.
Let’s put aside that the fact that things weren’t so great during the Roman Empire (slavery, no rights for women, brutal wars, deranged emperors, etc.), and that a lot of great things were invented between the two world wars. The movie is based on a short-story by Philip K. Dick, but I kept thinking about Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now everyone knows that the movie ends with a pretty but hardly stimulating special effects foetus floating in space. The novel ends with a super-evolved creature that is so powerful that it thinks it has the right to decide things for Mankind. Its first decision is getting rid of all nuclear weapons. And now the question: is it right for someone smarter, stronger, better to rule over people just because of those qualities? Is it OK to give up our right to decide for ourselves if the people deciding for us make better decisions than we ever would? Or should we have the right to screw up?
This isn’t such an easy answer to reply; the whole basis of the democratic system is predicated on the fact that we invest strangers whom we consider smarter and better than us with power to rule our lives. We deposit our power in their hands because we hope they will know how to make good decisions for all of us. How different is that from what the AB does? Sure, we don’t vote for them, but in the context of the movie they haven’t really done anything harmful to Mankind, in fact they’re keeping its destruction at bay, barely. So is it OK for them to decide the lives of others or not? That’s a question worth thinking about, I believe. I don’t think the movie even imagined people asking it, so casually does it throw it into the air and then forgets it, unlike the clichéd free will vs. determination dilemma, over which the movie takes a clear stance in favour of free of will, of course. An example of a more interesting path the movie could have followed.
The Adjustment Bureau is not, as marketing would have you believe, the baby of the Bourne franchise and Inception. The movie is quieter (Thomas Newman and Hans Zimmer are pretty much opposites as far as musical styles are concerned), more romantic (a word I don’t believe exists in Nolan’s dictionary), not as likely to induce sickness as Paul Greengrass’ shaky camera, and a lot funnier than either.
The only similarity with Inception is the disappointing ending that comes out of nowhere, but I don’t think that’s what marketing had in mind. But that’s the one I found. The Adjustment Bureau can’t help ending with a moralising coda that is as redundant as it is corny. Like I said, there is much to enjoy, but also a lot to complain about. My suggestion is to just let the leads’ relationship take the viewer for a fun ride and try to ignore the flaws as much as possible.
Director: George Nolfi
Screenplay: Philip K. Dick (short-story), George Nolfi (screenwriter)
Cast: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Terence Stamp, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly
Runtime: 106 min