Pick of the week: The "Bourne" star and Emily Blunt challenge fate in a Philip K. Dick-inspired "Adjustment Bureau"
Here’s the thing about “The Adjustment Bureau,” which is a science-fiction romance featuring Matt Damon and English actress Emily Blunt as a couple on the run from mysterious men with hats. It’s a somewhat awkward blend of ingredients, but not in the usual Hollywood fashion, where it often appears that nobody involved really gave a crap, or even bothered to watch the whole thing all the way through. Instead, “The Adjustment Bureau” is distinctly the work of one guy, and not a guy with Spielbergian or Scorsesean clout, either: Writer-director-producer George Nolfi is known in the industry as the writer of “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Ocean’s Twelve,” but has never made a movie on his own before.
So the things that are odd about the film, like its blend of Philip K. Dick-trapped-in-”The Matrix” paranoia and cut-rate Augustinian theology, feel clean and organic, if that makes any sense. (It’s based, very loosely, on Dick’s 1954 short story “The Adjustment Team.”) Nolfi’s dialogue is lean and often funny, while Damon and Blunt play appealing and clearly delineated characters drawn together by the kind of old-fashioned romantic passion you don’t often see in contemporary movies. You can feel the influence of classic American movies like “North by Northwest” and “The Graduate” here, and while I won’t argue that Nolfi matches those examples, his ambition is admirable. I also appreciated that “The Adjustment Bureau” doesn’t try to out-slick Christopher Nolan or the Wachowski brothers with high-style cinematography or mind-blowing CGI, even as it presents a universe where reality is not what you think, man.
Instead, Nolfi and cinematographer John Toll keep the movie calm and centered, sticking closely to the perspective of David Norris (Damon), a rising young New York politician who makes an unexpected discovery about the forces shaping his destiny. (I don’t mean such people as Jon Stewart, Mike Bloomberg and James Carville, who all appear as themselves.) I wasn’t a huge fan of Damon’s acting in his youthful “Good Will Hunting” phase, but as he’s edged toward middle age (he’s 40 now) he relies less on boyish appeal and has grown tremendously in presence and technique. This is another in his recent series of underplayed, awkward, emotionally strangled American-guy roles (after “The Informant!” and “Hereafter”) and might be the best. David is something of a quick-witted frat-boy type, who has risen from a tough Brooklyn neighborhood — Red Hook, for my fellow Kings County residents — and become the youngest congressman in history.
When he meets a gorgeous British party girl named Elise (Blunt) in a hotel men’s room as he’s preparing a concession speech, David is completely unprepared for what will follow. It’s a terrific ships-in-the-night scene, with almost a Noel Coward sparkle, and given the circumstances it feels convincing. David has gotten crushed in an election he expected to win (the New York Post published photos of him mooning college classmates at a reunion), and his emotions are forcibly leaking out of his buttoned-up persona. As for Elise, she’s a dancer and a choreographer and an impulsive hothead, exactly the kind of person who would hide from hotel security in the men’s room and then make out with a congressman she’s never met. The character could easily be a sexy-artist-chick caricature, but Blunt’s performance is so fiery, funny and intelligent she never feels that way.
But what David and Elise won’t find out for a while is that there’s a reason they meet in that bathroom, and meet again on a Manhattan bus a few months later — and also a reason they keep being pulled apart. (These are very minor plot spoilers, I promise — but here’s your chance to go elsewhere.) On his first day at a private-sector job after his electoral defeat, David winds up being abducted by a squad of fedora-wearing goons presided over by Richardson (“Mad Men’s” ever-wry John Slattery), who seem to have frozen time in order to recalibrate David’s boss’s brain. These guys can travel through a system of secret New York doorways that behave like mini-wormholes, they carry little electronic books (something like an iPad with actual pages) that seem to contain an ever-shifting cosmological template, and they work for somebody called The Chairman, whose design for the universe is called The Plan.
“Are you guys angels?” David asks Mitchell (the suave Anthony Mackie), who seems to have been deputized to watch over him. “We’ve been called that,” purrs Mitchell, before moving on to some semi-helpful obfuscation. (Apparently the Staten Island ferry is a good place to have conversations that God — sorry, the Chairman — can’t overhear. You might want to keep that in mind.) All this exposition happens early in the movie, and the real questions in “The Adjustment Bureau” aren’t about what’s happening but why the Plan apparently dictates that David and Elise must be kept apart, and whether there’s anything they can do about it. They can go on an exhilarating chase through those secret doorways, jumping from Wall Street to Yankee Stadium to the Statue of Liberty, that’s what. (This is among the best uses of New York locations in recent years.)
Now, those questions engender other questions, and if those sound like debating points drawn from an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” or a lecture by some Vatican II-style liberal theologian, you’re on the right track. Have David and Elise stumbled into a Miltonic War in Heaven, in which Mitchell — the only “adjuster” of color we ever see — is playing the role of Lucifer? If we live in a universe designed by some Grand Poobah who stands outside time, is our sense of agency and free will an illusion? If there is indeed a Plan, how could anything ever happen that would deviate from it? If God needs a bunch of FBI agents in 1950s clothes running around making us spill our coffee to keep things running, then his professed omnipotence is a total hoax, isn’t it? Or has he, in some grand New Age post-Thomist paradox, allowed us to become co-creators of the universe, along with him and the martini-smirky John Slattery?
OK, as you can see, either “The Adjustment Bureau” falls apart when you start to think about it, or you need to think about it a whole lot deeper and better than I just did. Nolfi makes no effort to conceal the Judeo-Christian roots of his premise (which is also true in the Dick short story), and if you object to infusions of pop religion into your science fiction — I see you out there, fists clenched and slowly turning purple — no doubt this movie will drive you nuts. But if you’re looking for an end-of-winter cinematic palate cleanser that delivers a sweep-you-off-your-feet love story along with a few gooey, chewy, slightly silly philosophical niblets, then the Plan demands that you see this movie.
More Related Stories
- Cannes: Ryan Gosling's new movie draws the boo-birds
- Radio host tweets rape joke, blames journalists for reporting on it
- Juror responds to Joe Francis' insults with thoughtful email
- New track from the Lonely Island features Solange Knowles, semicolons
- Amazon introduces fan fiction publishing platform
- Naomi Watts, "Argo," "Wonderstone" among bizarre Teen Choice Awards nominees
- Imprisoned Pussy Riot member declares hunger strike
- The camp-free "Behind the Candelabra"
- Justin Bieber will destroy you if you live-tweet his parties
- Marc Maron on Twitter feud with Michael Ian Black: "We have an understanding"
- "Girls Gone Wild" creator Joe Francis to jury: "You should be euthanized"
- Ai Weiwei releases heavy metal music video
- Actually, Beyoncé is a feminist
- Marc Maron and Michael Ian Black's epic Twitter battle
- Cannes: Directing 101 with James Franco
- Welcome to the jungle: The definitive oral history of '80s metal
- Burt Bacharach opens up on daughter's suicide
- Steven Spielberg to produce "Halo" television series
- Amazon set to launch fine-art gallery
- Twitter torches Dan Brown's "Inferno"
- Brad Pitt keeps breaking his silence on how boring marriage to Jennifer Aniston was
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11