CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (2011)
By MICHAEL ARRUDA & JOHN HARVEY
(The Scene: A park bench on a busy city street. L.L. SOARES, unpredictably dressed in a suit and a trilby hat, sits on the bench, speaking into his cell phone.)
LS: Don’t worry. I get it! Michael Arruda has to start his review of THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU before 7:00 AM, and then I get the weekend off. No problem, I’m on it. Now shut your pie hole. Like I’m going to forget. Nothing distracts me. (Shuts off cell phone, just as a gorgeous redhead walks past him.) Whoa! Wucka-wucka! (whistles) (looks at his watch) Dammit! It’s 6:59!
(LS gets up and runs towards bus stop, just as MICHAEL ARRUDA appears on the sidewalk carrying a cup of coffee. LS runs across the street towards MA, but is distracted by a buxom blonde. While he’s looking at her, he’s hit by an oncoming bus, which sends him hurtling through the air. MA looks up and notices camera.)
MA (to camera): Oh, hello. You’re early. I’m on my way now to meet L.L. Soares to review this week’s movie, THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU. Why don’t you come on the bus with me and we’ll chat a bit before I begin the review with L.L?
(MA gets on a bus and notices JOHN HARVEY sitting with an empty seat next to him. John looks out the window at the crowd gathering around a horribly injured L.L. Soares.)
MA: Hey, John!
JH: Hey! Have a seat.
MA: Thanks. Funny bumping into you. In a big city like this, what are the odds?
JH: It’s like it was planned or something.
MA: Yeah, I’m on my way to meet L.L. to review THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU. It’s weird though. I’ve been trying to call him all morning to confirm our meeting, and my cell phone doesn’t seem to be working.
(John looks out the window again toward the accident. Off-screen, we hear LS scream “Cool, I can see my own spine!”)
JH: Yeah … I have a funny feeling that’s just not going to work out. Call it fate. Hey, I saw THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU. Maybe I could review it with you. (points to the camera) Since those folks have joined you for the ride, maybe we could review it right now, right here.
MA: That is an excellent idea.
THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (2011) is the new science fiction movie starring Matt Damon, in which his character is chased and harassed by a mysterious group of men in suits and hats who are hell-bent on controlling his destiny. It’s based on a short story by Philip K. Dick called “Adjustment Team.” I suspect a story like this worked better as a short story than a feature length film, because there are lots of holes and questions in this plot which become more exposed the longer it goes on.
In THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, Matt Damon plays hotshot David Norris, an up and coming politician with a bright future ahead of him. On the eve of his winning a New York Senate seat, a scandal erupts over a published photo of him mooning his friends at a college reunion party. As a result, he loses the election. Before he delivers his concession speech, though, he has a chance meeting with a young dancer Elise (Emily Blunt) who he hits it off with immediately. She has to run since she had crashed a wedding at the same hotel and was being chased by security, but Norris is so captivated by her that he becomes inspired and goes on to deliver the best speech of his career, setting him up to be the front runner in the next Senate election.
Norris joins a private venture capital firm and temporarily leaves politics. Unbeknownst to him, one morning on his way to work, a mysterious stranger dressed in a suit and hat named Harry (Anthony Mackie) is instructed to make sure Norris misses his bus and returns home before going to work, but Harry accidentally nods off instead!
(suddenly laughs) I have to stop here for a second. What kind of a superior being who has the power to control destinies oversleeps on the job? Is this a comedy? I thought this was a ridiculous plot point.
JH: It did seem a bit contrived, but they did establish Harry as an “agent” who was both more sympathetic and job weary compared to his peers. It’s thin, but this film was designed around a human story, rather than careful, believable plotting. But go on.
MA: Because Harry screws up, Norris gets on the bus and has a second chance meeting with the woman of his dreams, Elise. They hit it off again, and she gives him her phone number.
Norris arrives at work on time, which wasn’t supposed to happen, and he finds everyone there frozen in time and stumbles upon of group of men sticking some kind of probe into his friend and co-worker’s head. Norris tries to flee, but is quickly caught and confronted by the leader of these men, Richardson (John Slattery). Richardson decides to level with Norris and tells him who they are, a group of beings who work for someone known as The Chairman who spend their time controlling people’s destinies.
Richardson tells Norris he must never reveal what he knows, or else his brain will be wiped clean. There is one other problem, Richardson says. Norris wasn’t supposed to meet Elise again. Their getting-together is not part of The Chairman’s plan, so they must never see each other again.
As you can imagine, this doesn’t sit well with Norris, and he spends the rest of the movie trying to find Elise, while the Adjustment Bureau does everything in their power to stop him. Why, you ask? It seems the folks at the Adjustment Bureau want our buddy Norris to become president one day, and he just isn’t going to be that motivated if he’s home and happy in love with the girl of his dreams, Elise, which doesn’t actually make much sense, since she was the one who inspired him in the first place.
I was wary of THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU because I’d heard there had been many rewrites and delayed release dates, which often spells doom for a movie, but I have to say, in spite of the holes in this movie’s plot, I actually found myself liking this one, which certainly surprised me.
JH: I liked it, too. I didn’t love it, but I liked it. I think that I was a lot more forgiving of the plot holes than you were. Also, keep in mind that this was George Nolfi’s first turn as writer, director, and producer of a single film. Before this, he had writing credits on THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007) and OCEAN’S TWELVE (2004), and a few other films. This was a pretty ambitious project for him.
MA: The main reason I found this movie entertaining was I bought into the love story between Norris and Elise, and so while the threat to their relationship didn’t always make sense, I wanted them to be together, and so I was drawn into their story, and as a result enjoyed it. I was also interested in just who The Adjustment Bureau were, and I wanted to know more about them. Here, the movie doesn’t do so well.
JH: I’ll agree with you there. I’ve seen so many movies recently where the love story is very contrived and plastic. In THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, you buy into the chemistry between these two. As far as the Adjustment Bureau itself is concerned, I was afraid that they’d tell me too much about what they’re about. In film, this is the sort of device that works better as an unexplained mystery.
MA: I disagree. I wanted to know more about them.
I mean, I like the IDEA of the Adjustment Bureau, a group of beings who plan everything out and control our destiny so we don’t screw up the world, and some of the things they say in the movie ring true, like when they describe their work and talk about people losing keys, cell phones not working, and how we think it’s chance but it’s really them. This rings true because this sort of thing happens to us all the time, and often we wonder, is there some unseen force preventing me from doing this?
However, the more you think about the concept of The Adjustment Bureau, the less sense it makes. First off, it seems too incredibly difficult to pull off, to control all our destinies, and that’s what happens in the movie. These guys screw up left and right, which to me, is the biggest problem in this movie, and that is, the Adjustment Bureau are a bunch of failures. They should be called the Failure Bureau.
JH: Eh. I didn’t have a problem with that. Mostly because it’s a blatant urban fantasy/romance film. So, I know going into it that everything in the film is subservient to the characters and the love story. If the filmmaker’s spent a lot of time trying to make the Adjustment Bureau seem logical, then they lose their target audience. This is a date movie with fantastical elements. It’s not even loosely science fiction or realism.
MA: Well, I wasn’t on a date.
(ANOTHER MAN IN SUIT and wearing a fedora is suddenly running alongside bus, screaming and hollering at MA through window)
MAN: Hey! Did you start the review yet? DID YOU START THE REVIEW!?
(JH stares at the man as he runs.)
MA: Do you hear something?
(MAN IN SUIT runs smack dab into a Stop sign on street and collapses to ground.)
JH (listening): No. But on second thought, I have to admit that these Adjustment Bureau agents have the same kind of luck as a drummer in SPINAL TAP.
MA: And they give Norris way too much slack. They should never have allowed him to get as far as he did. When Richardson first comes on the scene, he’s powerful and effective. He seems to have special powers, the ability to make objects move, to freeze time, yet later all these strengths seem to be gone and he’s reduced to a slow-moving dimwit.
A higher-up is called in, Thompson, played with dignified menace by Terence Stamp, but the same thing happens to him. Damon’s Norris walks all over these guys. The Adjustment Bureau should have been more of a threat.
JH: It did seem a bit easy for Norris to outsmart these guys. On another subject, what I would have liked to see out of Norris is a moment when he contemplates cutting Elise out of his life entirely due to ego and political ambition. It’s a very predictable love story because you know that he’ll always act out of his total and consuming love for Elise. It would have added a little more texture and humanity to the film if one or both of the characters had moments when they are entirely self-centered.
MA: That’s a good point. Norris is pretty much being handed the keys to his future. You’d think he’d contemplate the offer a little more seriously, but it’s a classic case of wanting what he can’t have, Elise.
Unlike you, I wanted to know more about the Adjustment Bureau. It’s hinted at that they’re angels, and the Chairman is God, but if true, this would be disappointing. They lack passion and purpose. I mean, why are they doing these things? I don’t really understand their point. If they’re so powerful that they can control our destiny, don’t they have something better they can be doing? Why do they care so much for us? Do they love us? With the exception of Harry, who feels sorry for Norris and is compelled to help him, it doesn’t seem that way. They’re just a bunch of suits following orders.
It would have been cool had they been humans from the future. That would have explained their interest in helping the human race, because they’d be preserving their life in the future. But this isn’t the case. It’s never clearly explained who they really are.
JH: I completely disagree with you there. If they’d started going into that kind of minutia about the Adjustment Bureau, I would have been disappointed. If it turned out that they’re humans from the future, then I would have been just plain angry. These guys work best as a mystery. As far as I’m concerned, they came to the hairy edge of saying too much.
MA: Really? I thought they were way underdeveloped.
Another hole in the story occurs when the Team tells Norris that he can never see Elise again, and they say they’re not worried about this happening by chance because without her phone number and last name, it’ll be next to impossible for him to find her again. I didn’t buy this, because the two met on a bus on their way to work. Wouldn’t it be feasible to believe that they ride the same bus at the same time every day because they’re going to the same jobs? Also, he’s a famous politician. Wouldn’t it be easy for her to find him? She knows his name, for damn sure! It’s all over the news!
JH: And if you’d gone to this movie with a date, then so many of these things would matter so much less for you. Because she’d be content and cuddly, and you’d be too busy wondering if she’s happy enough to let you do … you know … “the weird stuff” when you get home.
MA: I’ll die happy if you never bring up “the weird stuff” again. What’s all this date stuff anyway? Did you have a date?
JH: Of course not. I couldn’t find a date in the candied fruits section at the supermarket. But I may have been a little drunk when I saw this movie. THAT also makes you a bit more forgiving. Anyway, let’s just agree to disagree on how much the plot holes should bother the average viewer. Let’s talk about other aspects of the film.
I thought the acting was decent. I like Matt Damon a lot, and he’s solid as David Norris. Damon certainly fares better here than he did in last year’s HEREAFTER. He’s believable as a young politician, and his feelings for Elise seem real. I bought the fact that he was desperately in love with her. He also seemed to have put on some weight here, so when he’s running through the streets fleeing the Bureau baddies, he doesn’t look like super killer Jason Bourne, which is a good thing.
Emily Blunt was okay as Elise, though she was somewhat less effective than Damon. One thing I didn’t buy was that she was supposed to be this amazing ballet dancer, yet in the scenes we see her dance, she’s anything but amazing. Blunt played Gwen Conliffe in last year’s THE WOLFMAN. She was okay in that movie too. Neither performance blew me away though.
I liked John Slattery a lot as Richardson, the main Adjustment Bureau guy, and he delivered the best performance in the movie. Slattery has a long and varied resume, and we saw him last year in IRON MAN 2 as Howard Stark.
(Editor’s Note: even MORE people will know Slattery as Roger Sterling from the excellent TV show, MAD MEN)
Anthony Mackie was less effective as the goodie-goodie Bureau guy Harry Mitchell. I found him a bit too nice for my tastes, and I think the biggest problem I had with his character is I never really understood why he cared for Damon’s character so much.
Terence Stamp as the heavy, Thompson, was sufficiently cold-hearted and powerful, but he would have been much more fun had he actually been successful at being cold-hearted and powerful.
JH: I agree with pretty much everything you have to say about the acting. I’ll add that I think Terrence Stamp was used too little in this film. He brought a level of gravitas to the Adjustment Bureau that seemed to be lacking whenever he walked off camera.
MA: George Nolfi’s direction is okay, as the movie looks fine, but the chase scenes were not very exciting. They just seemed to be lacking in the suspense department. Scenes of people running (and there were a lot of these) on their own don’t generate a whole lot of suspense. THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU doesn’t really work as a suspense thriller, because it’s not that suspenseful nor is it much of a thriller
The script which director Nolfi also wrote works best when you don’t think about it too much.
JH: I thought of this movie as INCEPTION-lite with a love story. It’s a lot more accessible to a wider audience. I think a valid criticism of this film is that it attempts to be a jack of all trades, but master of none. It’s good in many respects, but spectacular at nothing.
MA: I liked the two main characters enough to care about what happened to them, and so when these weirdos in suits and hats start playing around with their future, I wanted them to stop, and I wanted the two lovers to get away from them.
The problem isn’t with the two lovers. They’re fine. It’s with the Adjustment Bureau. They’re an interesting lot, but too little is revealed about them and their motives, and once the going gets rough, they don’t get going. They fail miserably, which is a huge disappointment.
There are lots of scenes where Damon is fleeing from them, running like hell, and they’re in pursuit—walking. It’s like, will you hurry up? He’s friggin getting away!
It’s like Darth Vader finally confronting Luke Skywalker but suddenly realizing he’d forgotten his light saber. Oops. Why did I pay all this money to watch this character if he can’t even remember to bring his light saber? Same here. These guys can’t control one politician and a ballerina? What the hell business do they have then trying to run the world! Scram!
JH: Really? You’re comparing and contrasting THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU with RETURN OF THE JEDI? You own a set of Captain Kirk pajamas, don’t you?
MA: Damn! How did you know?
Anyway, I liked this one, and in spite of the weak villains and less than tight story, I found the plight of the desperate lovers compelling and entertaining, enough for me to recommend this movie. I give THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU three knives.
JH: For the most part, we agree. We diverge mostly on believability (or rather, the level required to enjoy the film) and exposition regarding the film’s fantastical elements. So, I’m giving it 3.5 knives.
(The bus comes to a halt at the same stop where they started. Michael and John have been on the bus for the whole route)
MA: Hey, we’re back where we started. I wonder if we’ll find L.L. hanging around? I’m starting to worry about him.
(John looks out the window to see the same crowd gathered around LS’s prone and bloody body.)
JH: You know, I don’t think that’s in the plan.
LS (gets up, brushing himself off): I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. I’m just a little bloody, is all.
(NICOLAS CAGE pulls up in a Dodge Charger and LS gets in on the passenger side.)
MA: I can’t believe he totally blew off this review. (Shakes head as he and JH get off at their stop).
LS (off-screen): Thanks for reviewing this one for me guys. Since I’m a big Philip K. Dick fan, and I hate Matt Damon, I’m sure I would have hated it.
(Dodge Charger squeals as it roars off. MA and JH didn’t even hear him)
JH: Yeah, I suspect he got hit by something unexpected. It’s a funny old world.
MA: I guess. You want to grab a beer.
JH: Sure. It’s booze-o’clock somewhere.
(They each put on fedoras and head towards a bar.)
© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda & John D. Harvey (with a smidgen of input from L.L. Soares)
Michael Arruda gave THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU – three knives
John Harvey gave THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU - three and a half knives