No Fate But What We Make?
A Film Review of The Adjustment Bureau
By: Lawrence Napoli
So you have some spare time to kill between classes at college and you decide to go to the dining hall to grab a quick bite because the evening has an important 2 hour review class for a very important final examination. You purchase your goodies, sit at a table and out of the corner of your eye you see the most beautiful specimen of woman your mongrel eyes have ever gazed upon. All manner thoughts and emotions blaze through your mind simultaneously: “Why have I never seen her before? Is she a freshman? God, she is beautiful! I wonder if we share any lectures. Why is she sitting alone? Should I go over and introduce myself? That’s completely crazy! That kind of boldness only happens in fantasyland and movies! I am such a coward! What if she thinks I’m a stalker? What if her boyfriend shows up out of nowhere? Does she even have one? Come on, women that beautiful are born with boyfriends! But what have I got to lose? I’m no stranger to rejection. Screw it, I’m going over there!” And you decide to go, but in your haste to channel Casanova, you spill your coffee all over your crotch and you only have 5 minutes to get to class. Your thoughts dissipate and pragmatism overtakes you. You grab for a stack of napkins to wipe yourself off, gather your things and dash off to class. You never see the girl again and wonder whether that was fate, your own doing subconsciously or simply the chaotic element of chance at work. Thus, I introduce you to the premise of The Adjustment Bureau.
This delightfully seducing thriller of fantasy and romance was originally conceived by the severely underrated and underappreciated machinations of the one and only Philip K. Dick. His short stories have been adapted into a number of very successful films that redefined the concept of “thought-provoking” and how an individual perceives reality. If you’ve never heard of such films as Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990) and Minority Report (2002) please cue them up in your Netflix account ASAP before you are blacklisted as a communist! Dick’s short story: Adjustment Team, is the source material that was quite skillfully adapted to the silver screen by writer/director George Nolfi whose own considerable credits include the screenplays of Ocean’s Twelve (2004), The Sentinel (2006) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). This film happens to be Nolfi’s first shot at the director’s chair and I must say that his first stint was a resounding success. A director must have a clear vision of what a film is in order to allow it to evolve naturally in one direction. It is far too easy for directors, especially rookies, to throw so many plot twists, cameo appearances, and explosions all over the screen to make an immediate reputation as a bold director who is to be remembered. Over-saturation of the spectacle can sometimes be detected by the audience and when “too much” is happening on the screen, withdrawal is inevitable. Nolfi never loses sight of a simple tale of young lovers meant to be together while living in a world of opposition dead set on their absolute separation. This is a compelling story that most viewers can instantly relate to because the idea of desire without hope of satisfaction is common to the human experience. Maintaining focus on the couple by way of strict discipline to the script and meticulous attention to the actors’ performances allows said idea to fully realize without being sidetracked by the fantastic circumstances of a seemingly omnipotent opposition.
Nolfi gets the most out of his cast and crew because a budget of around $51 million dollars is about half the going rate for a standard Hollywood thriller these days. What makes this film refreshing is the way it was made to be visually dynamic without the assistance of computer graphics, wirework teams and pyrotechnics. “So what does that leave the production staff with?” one might ask. The answer is: scenery and cinematography. When one selects New York City as the primary location of one’s cinematic adventure, one has an excellent selection of interiors and exteriors that keeps the frame interesting even if the action contained within is not. Thus, the audience is privy to a plethora of cityscapes and architecture that only the tri-state area can provide. The cinematographer, John Toll, does an exquisite job by animating the various settings through ever shifting camera angles, pans, tilts and tracking shots. Toll’s camera work is active throughout as only the most poignant dialogue is reserved for the stationary position. Combined with seamless editing, the overall look of The Adjustment Bureau is sleek, smart and sexy; all of which are required to make a film people want to see.
The acting performances of this film are authentic and heartfelt; so much so that I question the film’s release date as perhaps the best time of the year for a film to be completely forgotten during next year’s media award season. The Adjustment Bureau is a dialogue driven drama and without good actors and great chemistry on the screen, the project is dead in the water. Lucky for the audience, this film is yet another fine example of the fantasy genre finding a way for performance to be featured as a strength in one of its productions. The supporting cast lead by Anthony Mackie and John Slattery as Bureau agents Mitchell and Richardson does a fine job establishing the ground rules and the source of antagonism in this fictional world. Both actors are featured enough to get some excellent dramatic nuggets not just between themselves, but with the lead actors as well. The nature of a bureau agent is clearly far removed from that which is human; therefore a consistent pattern of deadpan stoicism and intellectual supremacy is required amongst them to maintain the illusion. Only Mackie is allowed to diverge from this well executed strategy as his character is called upon to transition from opposition to support of the main character. He skillfully accomplishes this with very subtle smiles, moments of warmth in his dialogue and slightly sustained pauses to illustrate disappointment. Mackie’s character never loses high status while demonstrating a significant shift in demeanor that allows the audience to believe that an entity such as that would ever be impacted by the affairs of human beings.
I am in love with Emily Blunt and it’s not just because of her beautiful face, exotic eyes, sexy accent and incredible skill as an actress. Oh wait, it’s because of all of those things. Seriously though, Ms. Blunt continues to grow on me as her variety of roles continues to expand and impress. But it’s not just the variety; it’s the consistent quality in her performances amidst the variety that is astounding. I personally hated The Devil Wears Prada (2006), but I loved her in it. Emily Blunt carries over her undeniable charisma with her portrayal of Elise in The Adjustment Bureau. Elise is the protagonist’s love interest who represents the quintessential mystery woman who defines all things unconventional and alluring. She is the prototypical soul mate that an individual would rarely consider as suitable, but finds perfectly complimentary to just about every side of one’s own personality. What allows Emily Blunt to sell the “perfect woman” routine begins with her clear chemistry with Matt Damon on the screen. This is communicated to the audience through frequent instances of comic mischief between the two that comes off as perfectly playful and innocent while highlighting moments where Blunt and Damon gaze at each other in utter wonderment that sells an intimate connection being formed between the two characters. Although Elise is an interpretive dance ballerina, Ms. Blunt is not called upon to showcase a dancing ability with the veracity of Natalie Portman in Black Swan (2010). Her dancing is impressive nonetheless and further establishes her character as one who clearly wears emotion on her sleeves. Emily Blunt is a first class actress that approaches every role with the dedication of a seasoned veteran and the ambition of a novice. Watch for her emergence as the choice leading woman of this generation of Hollywood films.
Matt Damon has not been considered a “boy” in film the way he was for his breakout role in Good Will Hunting (1997), but his boyish good looks allow him to continue to explore certain roles outside his seniority. Damon is 13 years older than Emily Blunt but his character, David Norris is meant to be Elise’s peer, further developing the “perfect woman” illusion. Regardless, Damon skillfully taps into his reservoir of youthful drive to depict a young politician from New York that is gaining the kind of everyman popularity amongst the people that most politicians shamelessly salivate over. What ingratiates his character to the audience, more so than his own natural charisma, is when his character drops the token political facade after an early campaign is met with disappointment. Real people in the real world are attracted to actual honesty as much as they are distracted by the tried and true old, rich white man gag that most politicians employ time and time again. David Norris is a character whose youthful indiscretion comes back to haunt him, but Damon’s performance clearly establishes the character as anything but a loose cannon with a maturity, intelligence and presence beyond his years. This is why it is an extreme treat to the audience when Norris’ charisma goes off the charts whenever he shares screen time with Elise, who brings out another side to his personality that is slightly less formal, clearly more fun and open to endless possibilities that exist “outside the box.” Women want him and men want to be him; is perhaps the most appropriate description, but Damon accomplishes this without spectacle, glitz, glam or a mightier-than-thou attitude. He does it by revealing the intimate inner workings of his character: the motivation instilled to him by his family’s tragedies and his own inner demons. If soul connections can exist on film, Matt Damon makes an unmistakable one with Emily Blunt and they are both to be congratulated for their professionalism and their believability.
The Adjustment Bureau is a film I was honestly not expecting to be as fulfilling, satisfying and thoughtful as it was. This film is a perfect date movie that appeals to the romantic and dramatic for women and the danger and intrigue for men. Very few films will cause one to take a step back and really examine how one’s life has unfolded thus far, consider the possibility of the infinite potential of improvement, while leaving the individual viewer in such a positive state of serene contentment by the film’s end. This film was a wonderful experience and as true and heartfelt as Hollywood can make them. Take your wives; take your husbands, your sisters and your brothers to go see The Adjustment Bureau. It will make you smile at life again.