Review: The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

By now, if you’ve read a review of The Adjustment Bureau (such as the one posted earlier on this website by Aren), you’ll have heard about the noteworthy romantic chemistry between the film’s two leads, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt.  I agree with that assessment, for the most part.  While hardly original, the romance between Damon’s David Norris and Blunt’s Elise Sellas does feel sincere.  During their meet-cute in a men’s washroom—probably the best scene in the movie—Damon and Blunt create a believable romantic spark between the two characters.  What’s more, the two actors are able to rekindle that spark each time their characters meet over the years.  Once David and Elise finally choose each other, their spark diminishes and their love becomes less believable, but this is mostly due to the final act being one long chase with no time for light verbal sparring or subtle displays of emotion.  Even so, the two leads are certainly the film’s greatest strength. Unfortunately, and despite Damon and Blunt’s best efforts, the movie is unsuccessful as a whole.  In the end, Blunt and Damon’s vitality is stifled by all the nonsense in the story.  But there didn’t have to be nonsense.  A mysterious organization that controls people’s fates tries to keep an up-and-coming politician from being with the dancer he loves.  For those not irrationally opposed to science fiction and fantasy, this plot outline is full of potential—to move us, to make us think.  The problem is that writer-director George Nolfi mishandles the elements of speculative fiction in the film.

Questions of fate versus free will are at the forefront of The Adjustment Bureau, but the film’s philosophical/theological notions (as well as the erroneous summary of human history given at one point) are simplistic and trite, as if Nolfi had read the backs of a lot of philosophy books, but not the actual books.  Perhaps the main problem with the sci-fi aspect of the film, though, is that both too little and too much explaining is done.  Nolfi should have either fully committed to revealing the nature and operations of the mysterious Adjustment Bureau (and consequently ironed out foolish elements like the special hats), or simply let the Bureau just be a personification of fate and explained nothing.  As it stands, the film’s explanations are vague and unsatisfying, while the mystery is all but evaporated.  With heavy-handed themes, men in suits and fedoras, and a very typical love story, is Nolfi trying to evoke the science fiction and thrillers of the 1950s?  Even if this is the case, Nolfi does not imitate wholeheartedly, and so once again a lack of commitment and daring limits the film’s possibilities.

While I agree that during Hollywood’s current drought of creativity we should give credit to any American filmmaker who tries to do something new or different, would it be too much to ask for something new or different done smartly and skillfully?  Nolfi has shown some respect to his audience by trying to make a movie both intelligent and moving—a drama with ideas.  But why couldn’t he respect his audience even more and trust them to grapple with fully developed, even problematic, ideas?  Where is Inception 2?  (I’m asking for the spiritual not literal sequel, mind you.)  Sadly, it may be a long wait.

5 out of 10

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Directed by George Nolfi; screenplay by Nolfi from a short story by Philip K. Dick; starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt.