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With vibes from such recent clever films as The Matrix, Duplicity and Inception darting through this adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story, first-time director George Nolfi has pulled off a relative rarity — a genuinely romantic fantasy suspense thriller — in The Adjustment Bureau. Quite low-tech as these things go and a great New York location film in the bargain (no Toronto doubling here, thank you very much), the picture nimbly scampers all over the city while betraying a disarmingly whimsical attitude toward the central couple’s peculiar peril. Although more accessible conceptually and dramatically than either the Wachowskis’ or Nolan’s films, and possessing far more heart, this classy Universal release might nonetheless be perceived as too brainy and sophisticated for lowest common denominator mass consumption, indicating good but not great box-office results.
As a writer on Ocean’s 13 and The Bourne Ultimatum, Nolfi was well positioned to interest Matt Damon in playing a politician (changed from an insurance salesman in the short story) who learns that he’s nothing more than a puppet on a string controlled by a secret hidden organization that thinks it knows best.
In the event, David Norris is a perfect role for Damon, as he plays a working class Red Hook guy with a bad boy past who’s become a popular people’s congressman and, at the outset, is on the brink of election to the Senate. He’s a bright, if at times too frank young man who knows the ropes and can handle himself physically if needed.
But when he loses due to a last-minute tabloid revelation of a youthful indiscretion, David is alone in the men’s room rehearsing his concession speech when a vision appears — that of a beautiful young woman (Emily Blunt) emerging from a stall. After three minutes’ exposure to her smart chatter (enhanced by her British accent) and topped by an impulsive, passionate kiss, he’s hopelessly smitten. She dashes out, David is left confounded and her presence in the bathroom is not the only mystery of the evening: Who are these strange, slim men with hats buzzing about in the background?
Not long after, with David now a senior partner at a venture capital company, he’s thrilled to encounter the woman, Elise, on a bus and their rapport is again instantaneous and intense. But why does one of the hatted men (Anthony Mackie) risk life and limb chasing the bus through lower Manhattan and why does the other one (John Slattery), with the help of uniformed goons, apprehend David back in the office, handcuff him to a chair in a huge garage (weirdly accessible through a door on the building’s upper floors) and tell him to behave or else, “We’ll erase your brain?”
Because, as Slattery’s Thompson, says, “We are the people who make sure things go according to plan.” In other words, they’re members of the mysterious elite at the core of every conspiracy theorist’s dreams, the godlike manipulators who dictate the way of the world. Part of their pre-determined plan is that David must never see Elise again.
Although he can’t get her out of his mind, for three years David obeys the edict. Then, just as he’s launching a fresh attempt at the senate, David spots Elise by chance on the street and, after some strenuous explanations as to why he’s never contacted her, wins her trust and love once and for all.
From here, at about the one-hour mark, when David’s defiance has forced the Organization’s big cheese (Terence Stamp) to personally impress upon him the perilous consequences of his transgressions, the film shifts into desperate chase mode, as David, with some key inside assistance, learns how to slide between alternate physical worlds as he chases all over (and under) New York to find Elise and elude his determined pursuers.
The thematic impulse behind The Adjustment Bureau is a familiar one, that true love is worth more than anything else this life has to offer. The keys to Nolfi putting it over effectively in this real world but quasi-sci-fi context are his great success in making the connection between David and Elise so convincing and worth fighting for, and his skillful characterization of “The System” not as some portentously portrayed evil outfit but as a pragmatically run operation dedicated to saving humanity from itself. Lightness of touch is not what one expects in fictional portrayals of monolithic entities bent on world domination, so the subtle tone Nolti maintains here represents something fresh and welcome.
Equally responsible for keeping the viewer on the film’s side is the excellent rapport between Damon and Blunt. Incorporating known aspects of Damon’s personality — his political interests, athleticism and thoughtfulness — into the role helps David quickly assume three-dimensional stature. Damon also strongly conveys the character’s wounded side as well as his sense, when it comes to Elise, of bewilderment and persistent hope. It’s a satisfying, full-bodied performances.
For her part, this is the best Blunt has been onscreen since her early work in My Summer of Love and The Devil Wears Prada and certainly the film in which she seems most vibrant and alive in a romantic pairing; Elise sasses and tests David at every turn up to the point when she allows herself to become vulnerable and honest. For the film to pay off, it’s imperative that you believe in these two despite it all. And you do.
Slattery and Mackie cut striking yet borderline foppish figures as Organization men variably committed to keeping their charges in line, while Stamp makes the desired impression with his big entrance. Visually, the film is sheerest pleasure. Ace cinematographer John Toll soaks the countless New York locations for all they’re worth, capped by a beautiful top-of-the-world climax. If there are visual effects here (other than for the nifty portable electronic maps the bureau men use to track their prey), they’re undetectable. Thomas Newman‘s score helps accentuate the buoyant feel, despite some repetitiveness.
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