Damon and Blunt Spark 'Adjustment Bureau'
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Roughly inspired by a 1954 short story from the same writer who had his works turned into the films "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and "Paycheck," "The Adjustment Bureau" offers what science-fiction fans will recognize as Philip K. Dick in a box: conspiracy, reality-bending, big brainy questions and little weird details. Senatorial candidate David Norris (Matt Damon) is preparing a concession speech when he meets ballerina Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), and the connection is immediate. Nothing could keep them from pursuing each other ... aside from a mysterious conspiracy of retro-stylish men with knowledge of some grand plan that must be kept to themselves, and that doesn't include room for love between David and Elise.
Written and directed by George Nolfi, the film follows a fairly familiar set of rules and delivers a fairly familiar set of images and ideas. Imagine if "The Matrix" was not crafted to satisfy someone who watched Bruce Lee movies and read comic books while procrastinating on a computer science degree, but instead made for the enjoyment of someone who watched Douglas Sirk melodramas and read Harlequin romance novels while procrastinating on a theology degree. You get the same concerns -- What's real? Do we have free will? Can anything stop love? -- but with foot chases instead of gun battles, discussions of divine grace instead of robotic evil, and love, not kung-fu, conquering all.
As David pursues Elise, he keeps on encountering roadblocks thrown up by the Adjustment Bureau, nattily dressed functionaries who talk like organization men but seem just a touch more-than-human. They have neat Moleskine notebooks that open up to display animated maps of the workings of the universe and a neat knack for opening a door in one place and stepping out through it in another place blocks or miles away. The neatest thing about these functionaries -- played, moving up the ladder of management, by Anthony Mackie, John Slattery and Terence Stamp -- is that they do have a ladder of management, and they sound like they're out of "Office Space," not some boil-in-bag cliché sci-fi film. Slattery, exasperated by David's persistence in the face of warnings and obstacles, notes, "I just can't catch a break on this case," and you actually feel for the bad day at work he's having.
To director Nolfi's credit, he gets a substantial amount of chemistry out of Damon and Blunt -- their initial meeting throws so many sparks off the screen it might as well be in 3-D -- and he takes advantage of cinematographer John Toll (who shot the not-dissimilar "Vanilla Sky") and New York's shooting locations to terrific effect. It's his directorial debut, and after writing for Damon in both "The Bourne Ultimatum" and "Ocean's Twelve," Nolfi has a good sense of how to best use the actor's charisma and skills.
If one thing damages "The Adjustment Bureau," it's how it literally talks itself out of being really good, the energy of the final chase (full of space-shifting special effects shots so casually delivered it takes a few moments to realize how well-done and well-executed they actually are) diluted and undercut by a lengthy overexplanation of the film's metaphysics by Mackie. The Bureau is such an interesting idea -- capable of minor miracles and with the kind of gift for timing that when you imagine the metaphorical angels dancing on the head of a pin, these are the guys doing the choreography -- that Nolfi's need to answer every question in the last reel is more exasperating than enlightening.
Do Nolfi, Damon and Blunt create an instant classic of the emotional sci-fi subgenre like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" or "Solaris," where the big pseudoscientific idea in the film is just an excuse to explore philosophical ideas about love? Not quite. It's a hyper-adrenalized date movie, one that owes far more to Nicholas Sparks than Philip K. Dick. (Getting the squirrely, speed-freak ideas of Dick's wired, weird stories and novels on the big screen involves so much money and effort that the weirdness is often the first thing to go, as if the Philharmonic tuned up for needlessly large, elevator-music versions of Clash songs.) It's too bad that Nolfi couldn't stick closer to the cold bizarre brilliance of Dick's work in his film. The sentiment of "The Adjustment Bureau" isn't necessarily what sinks it, but the overexplained softened edges of the story turn what could have been an exceptional brain-bender into a good, but fairly standard-issue, heart-warmer.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.