Adjustment Bureau

I really hate to down-grade a movie just because it doesn’t fit into an established genre. After all, some of history’s greatest sleeper hits, like The Crow or Dark City, are impossible to find a shelf for. Some, like The Matrix, actually wound up founding their own genre. The problem is, those genres do exist for a reason. There are certain kinds of stories that hit the mark and resonate with humanity, and for every movie that was good enough to break the mold, like those above, there are probably several that tried and failed, like this one. It brings to mind a scene from Tales from the Crypt, in which a starving artist protests to a museum curator, “You promised to give me a showing if I came up with something new!” She laughs, “I meant something new, and good.”

At the start of The Adjustment Bureau (Dir. George Nolfi, 2011), we meet David Norris (Matt Damon), who is running for Senator from New York. He is way ahead at first but, over the course of a five-minute montage, the campaign takes a turn for the worse. On election night, he realizes he’s done and enters a rest room to work on his concession speech. Inside, he finds a woman named Elise (Emily Blunt) hiding from security (long story). He is quite taken with her, and, after security shows up, and she runs away, he reenters his “victory” party and gives the greatest speech he has given in his life.

The scene switches to one month later, and Norris has returned to his old job in a corporate office, anticipating the next senate race. He boards a bus and, to his surprise, finds Elise. He sits beside her, they have instant chemistry, and he gets her phone number.

So it’s been a long set up process, but it looks like the story is finally starting to go some where.

Norris arrives at work, walks into his boss’s office, and suddenly sees his boss, immobilized in a standing position, surrounded by menacing figures in suits and opaque helmets who are scanning him with lasers. Norris runs, and is chased by an army of men in suits. Each time he stops at a coworker’s desk for help, he finds them immobilized and apparently unconscious.

Well, alright! This movie turns out to be a Matrix-esq thriller. Sure, it won’t be as good as The Matrix, but I’m intrigued. Who are these guys? From what sinister place do they come? What twists in this movie will make us question what we think we know?

Norris is captured and finds himself tied to a chair in a warehouse, surrounded by the men in black (above). The man in charge identifies himself as Richardson (John Slattery) and tells Norris “We are the ones who make sure things happen according to plan.” He responds to a few more question with equally cryptic, bureaucratic terms. They gave Norris’ boss an “adjustment.” He will be fine, and will not remember what happened. This is being done because Norris was not supposed to see Elise a second time, according to something called “the Plan,” which is being developed by the head of the Adjustment Bureau, known only as “the Chairman.” If Norris ever reveals what he’s seen to anyone, he will be “reset” (essentially lobotomized). Richardson burns Elise’s phone number and tells Norris to forget her. Norris is then returned to his office, where no one else is aware of what’s happened.

David takes the same bus for the next three years, hoping to see Elise. One day, he finally does, and tries to reconnect with her.

So … now we’re back to the romantic comedy?

She initially pushes him away for not calling her for three years, but seems unable to resist the natural chemistry they always have. He winds up taking her to lunch. As they walk around town, enjoying each other’s company, Richardson and the Bureau start following them around, trying to interfere. Richardson will give an order such as “have his aide call him now.” And then Norris’ cell will ring. A Bureau member tells Richardson “If they kiss, anything strong enough to break them up will cause ripples over your limit.”

Really? … This movie has an army of threatening figures in suits, armed with seemingly god-like powers and scarily cryptic dialogue, and this is what they spend their time on?

This is how the movie goes. As Norris and Elise flirt, fight, fall in love, break up, and get back together, we see these “agents” peeking around corners, running in and out of magic doors, and causing things like lost keys and untied shoes to nudge events back on Plan.

As I waited for this movie to end, I found myself wondering who out there would really get into it. It doesn’t work as a guy movie. There isn’t enough action to make it interesting. The agents are cool at first, but never develop into anything. Their offices and their attire are something right out of the 1940s, and they all have banal, hyper-anglo names like Mitchell and Thompson. By the end, watching them work is about as interesting as watching a clerk file papers.

While these guys look like something out of The Matrix, they might be more at home in a movie like Just Like Heaven or Simply Irresistible; films that play with the idea of some higher power intervening in romantic relationships. But The Adjustment Bureau doesn’t work as one of those movies either, partly because we don’t see much of Elise and there isn’t enough attention paid to the details of their relationship. So, as a chick flick, it still comes up short.

It also fails to deliver as any serious contemplation of the questions it raises. We see arguments about fate vs. free will, love vs. success, etc., but none of them do more than throw out the standard lines. All the bureaucratic mumbo jumbo really gets old after awhile. There are a lot of eye-roll-inducing lines like “Chairman has the Plan. We only see part of it.” Why can’t they just call him “God” like everybody else?

Most ships follow the established trade routes and, in so doing, still deliver some worthwhile goods. Once in a while, a ship leaves all known territory and discovers a new world. But this one leaves one harbor, only to make a dash for the safety of another, only to turn at the last minute and head for another, until it’s lost at sea. I have to give Nolfi some credit for trying to be different. So here’s to those who wait forever for ships that don’t come in.

Last 5 posts by Seth H.

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