Review: The Adjustment Bureau, 2011, dir. George Nolfi

Nothing can bring down a good film like a weak, flimsy ending. If anything can make a person question their enjoyment of the two hours or so of movie they’ve watched up to the finale, it’s a bad denouement. Not even a bad one, even, just one that doesn’t do the rest of the story– its narrative, its themes– justice. And that, more or less, is exactly what ends up hamstringing The Adjustment Bureau, the first directorial effort from writer George Nolfi, from finishing strong and standing out as a really great piece of science fiction.
Here, Nolfi, adapting a Philip K. Dick story and expanding on it significantly in the process, directs Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in a romantic thriller about the magnetic pull and strength of true love and what the star-crossed will do to safeguard their inexplicable bond. David (Damon) and Elise (Blunt) seem to be polar opposites– he, a New York Senate hopeful and she, a ballet dancer– but when the two first meet it’s love at first sight nonetheless. Over the next four years, Elise and David part ways and suddenly run into each other over and over again, smothering and rekindling their love despite the interferences of dapper-looking gentlemen who, at first, answer to Roger Sterling, and later follow orders from General Zod himself (John Slattery and Terence Stamp, respectively). The “why” behind their intervention is at first unclear, but the nattily-attired fellows explain to David that they have a plan laid out for him– and for every person on the planet– and that his being with Elise deviates from that plan. Cruel fates indeed.

David takes none of this lying down and proves himself adroit at outsmarting the omnipresent sharp-dressed men bent on keeping him away from Elise. His adversaries, apparently, have never once in the history of mankind dealt with a case of true love; David is indomitable and unrelenting in his quest to be with Elise, his actions perfectly underscoring the film’s central theme of “love conquers all”, even if it becomes a bit on-the-nose at times. The nature of the premise yields a number of action-oriented sequences, crisp, economically filmed, and exciting; the gentlemen have a knack for manipulating and influencing the world around them, and while some of their methods are less visual and cinematic than others the film nevertheless has fun throwing roadblocks in David’s path and letting him circumvent them to the chagrin of his adversaries. The Adjustment Bureau isn’t an action film, but when it needs to get action-oriented it does so with great success.

But the story’s inherently romantic as well, and Nolfi is fortunate enough to direct two leads who not only are easy on the eyes but have clear and immediate chemistry with one another as well. Believing in Elise’s and David’s love is easy; Blunt and Damon are both in fine form here, forging an instant and palatable connection between one another that translates to the personal stories they’re attempting to tell together. Making their characters’ love feel real is no small feat; Elise and David only bump into each other a few times over the course of nearly half a decade, almost seamlessly starting off where they left off from the previous encounter. It’s a hard sell– wouldn’t Elise be a bit more curious as to why David didn’t try to call her for three years?– but Nolfi’s excellent principles make it work completely through their rapport and chemistry.

Damon flips back and forth between his working class chum and rushed action hero routines here, one part Will Hunting mixed with a surprisingly liberal dose of Jason Bourne. It’s a role that falls well within Damon’s wheelhouse, but he makes the previously tread ground feel fresh and never once phones his performance in. Blunt’s role is a bit more precarious– as the life-changing woman, Elise could have been an objectified female, hollow and flavorless, who exists simply so that David can win her love. It’s to the script’s credit that there’s more groundwork to the character than that, and to Blunt’s that she is able to extrapolate upon it, striking a balance of elegant restraint and relaxed, carefree radiance. Together, they constitute the film’s best recommendation– simply put, it’s a real joy to see them play off of each other. The rest of the cast does fine– Slattery is in close-to-full-on Mad Men mode, which strangely works for his character, while Stamp puts his most unforgiving, and callous face forward. If anyone gets the short end of the stick here, it’s Mackie, a dynamic actor who is tasked with delivering exposition in just about every scene he’s in. It’s a thankless role, but Mackie admirably makes the best of it and creates something of a genuine character out of what would likely have just been an info-dumping mouthpiece in the hands of another actor.

If The Adjustment Bureau has one minor weakness, it’s that exposition. Certainly there’s an acceptable level of need for a character whose purpose is to explain the rules as they pertain to the members of the titular organization– this is no different for films like Inception and Dark City, to which Nolfi’s picture has drawn some comparisons (even if those comparisons don’t necessarily jibe, particularly with the former film). But Nolfi’s script lays it on a little thick with unnecessary details, to the point where it feels as though he’s shoe-horning some of this stuff in. There’s such a thing as knowing too much, and while The Adjustment Bureau’‘s tendencies toward the expository don’t crush the film they do add unneeded fat to the proceedings.

Where the film truly stumbles, however, lies in the telling of its last act; after spending the better part of two hours with these characters, and after being told that Elise and David will be “reset”– in which the bureau’s caseworkers erase their targets’ brains– it still feels like there’s absolutely nothing on the line. In spite of our awareness that Thompson absolutely means business, and in spite of the aforementioned threat to David’s nervous system, there’s never a genuine sense of danger and the happy ending we’re hoping for is really just a foregone conclusion. This wouldn’t be as big a deal if the build-up to the climax wasn’t so satisfying, but the deflated and limp falling action mars, perhaps scuffs up, the rest of the story; it doesn’t totally diminish the good in the film, but rather hinders The Adjustment Bureau from being the potentially great movie it could have been. We need to see the stakes, and not just hear about them, and whether it’s a matter of Nolfi’s script just not having the chutzpah necessary to make us feel what’s on the line, or something else entirely, the film doesn’t deliver and as a result fails to establish palatable tension when it counts the most.

None of this should be taken to mean that The Adjustment Bureau must be avoided at all costs. Everything that comes before the ending is worth the price of admission for science fiction fans and even those who, uninitiated to the genre, simply desire a romantic time at the cinema. But Nolfi’s film may very well have been an early top ten of ’11 contender for me if he’d been bold enough to commit to a less nonchalant, light, and easy ending; if he had answered the challenges posed by the questions his film asked, and followed through on his themes, I’d be calling The Adjustment Bureau a total success. For a first-time effort in the director’s chair, it’s solid if unpolished, and maybe that sentence highlights how much the film is such a letdown in the end.

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6 thoughts on “Review: The Adjustment Bureau, 2011, dir. George Nolfi

  1. A surprisingly affecting sci-fi romance, aided immensely by the chemistry between stars Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. Could have been so much better though, and the run-time makes it all feel a little rushed. Good Review!

  2. I liked it. As you said, not a lot of tension in the third act, but I wasn’t watching it for the thriller aspects. It just seemed like a traditional love story, where the movie explains the world conspiring to separate our two leads with a neat little sci-fi/fantasy premise. It was a sweet, pleasant little love story – and the fact it had some great ideas thrown in (without ever disrupting anything) was just icing on the cake.

    And, as you said, it’s a joy to watch them play off one another.

    • I don’t think I would have been quite as let down by the ending had the film not set itself up as something of a thriller throughout the rest of the picture. It felt like the climax from a very, very different movie. But I still liked it, and Damon and Blunt together are truly fantastic.

      There are some interesting philosophical questions at its core, too; I think the film is a little too light to really have at it and explore them fully but they’re definitely there and very much worth considering.

  3. Yep, the ending of this infuriated me. Things were clicking along quite nicely — thanks to the chemistry between Blunt and Damon — and then that straight-outta-Hollywood ending. It’s like “(500) Days of Summer” all over again.

    • Thanks, Dan, and while I mostly agree I think the run-time could actually have stayed the same so long as everything else received a pretty strict edit and got tightened up. Blunt and Damon make the whole film worthwhile, though, flaws and all.

      Will, that’s more or less how I felt. Going further I actually felt a little cheated because of how easy and breezy the film ends.

      M, you and I are firmly on the same page. I just don’t get where that ending came from; the rest of the film isn’t exactly envelope-pushing but it’s certainly not “safe” in any strict sense of the word. But that ending! Oh, that ending. It’s a big, sanitized cop-out.

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