A Change of Plans, by David Bax
From what I’ve seen of it, it appears that the marketing strategy for The Adjustment Bureau, the directorial debut of screenwriter George Nolfi (The Bourne Ultimatum, Timeline) leans heavily on the romance angle of the film. That’s an approach that’s far from dishonest, as it really is a romance and that’s one of the best things it has going for it. But I have to wonder if a different approach could have been taken. If the trailers played up the fact that the film is a dour puzzle, a science fiction story with a sheen of class that poses far more questions than it has any interest in answering, perhaps it could draft behind the success of Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
After a dishearteningly apathetic opening montage introduces him, The Adjustment Bureau becomes the story of a man who meets the woman of his dreams the night he loses a Senate election and then discovers that Mad Men’s John Slattery and a bunch of other guys who look like they’re in Mad Men are literally working to keep them apart. It’s based on a short story by the great Philip K. Dick and, as such, is brimming with fascinating ideas. The premise itself points to a debate on fate and free will. In its finer moments, the film even manages to raise the question of whether we deserve free will. Issues of religious faith exist in the subtext, provide an impetus to ponder whether a god has any power once its existence is proven. There are also more ground-level matters of the heart on display here in the exploration of what drives a person to succeed in life and if happiness, for all its desirability, is actually a death sentence for personal progress.
Problematically for the movie, though, is the fact that the paragraph above displays more thematic engagement than Nolfi possesses at any point. During some scenes, I found that my mind was wandering. I was imagining the film I wished had been made, the one where such notions are allowed to play out on an exciting, grand scale. Sadly, The Adjustment Bureau largely ignores its intellectual potential, at times seeming even to actively stifle it in favor of rote formula trappings.
The villains are almost completely barred from being characters in any real sense. Except for one rogue, who is provided with very little motivation to break rank, they don’t exist at all outside of their costume design and their bureaucratic rules. That, by the way, is another issue – of corporate control in our daily lives – that the film ignores. Other elements are just as lazy. The score, by the usually dependable Thomas Newman, sounds like filler. Nolfi’s ideas about blocking betray an amateurish restlessness and he often stages shots so that people are looking away from each other while having a conversation, perhaps thinking that this would look cool in the trailer. And the extended chase scene at the film’s end is a tragedy of wasted opportunity. What could have been at least an echo of the innovative and breathless spinning-hallway sequence in the aforementioned Inception instead gets reduced to one simple visual idea, which Nolfi repeats, over and over again, for far longer than is tolerable.
The one accessible movie trait where The Adjustment Bureau succeeds is as a love story. Even the dialogue seems to perk up in their multiple meet-cutes and the two stalwart lead actors, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, have such a carefree magnetism that their elation at each other’s presence and heartache at each other’s absence come off the screen in waves. With any luck, this won’t be the last time they’re seen on film together.
Sadly, though Damon and Blunt aren’t the only two great actors in the cast, they’re the only ones who rise above the material. Slattery, along with Anthony Mackie and Terence Stamp are all wasted talents, consigned to being mere things instead of characters.
As I mentioned before, the potential for greatness roiling under the surface of this film moved me to ponder big ideas long after it ended. It’s a real loss that George Nolfi didn’t have the same impulses. In the truest sense of the word, The Adjustment Bureau is uninspired.