Well that was a bit of a surprise.
Sometimes it’s difficult to judge just how much one should know about a film before seeing it. Find out too much and you’re in danger of heading into spoiler territory. Too little and there’s the distinct possibility you’ll end up watching something that ordinarily wouldn’t interest you. I hadn’t read much about The Adjustment Bureau prior to viewing the Blu-ray release, having only glimpsed the trailer and gleaned enough to know it was based on a Phillip K Dick story, so I was expecting something akin to a sci-fi conspiracy thriller. What I actually got was a romantic drama/fantasy that wrong footed me until at least 45 minutes into its running time, by which point I began to realise that actually, nobody’s life was in danger and that ‘the bad guy’ wasn’t going to be making an appearance in this picture any time soon.
So let me assure those of you who, like me, may have seen the images of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt being pursued by shadowy figures in trench coats and fedoras, that the Adjustment Bureau mean you no harm. Because what they are is a group of semi-omnipotent beings charged by God (well ‘The Chairman’) with ensuring that everything goes to plan in the great entanglement of human affairs.
The Adjustment Bureau opens with a sequence depicting the political rise of man of the people David Norris (Matt Damon) as he appears poised on the verge of securing a US Senate seat. However, due to an unfortunate mooning incident at his college reunion that is then exploited by the tabloids on the eve of the elections, his chances are scuppered. Retreating to the gents in disappointment he meets ballet dancer Elise Sellas (Blunt) and the two of them develop an instant and overwhelming attraction. There then follows a period during which it appears that shadowy forces are up to no good, as the aforementioned men in fedoras (John Slattery and Harry Mitchell) set about ‘putting things right’. This involves getting Norris’s political career back on track, as well as ensuring that he never sees Elise again because it is not in God’s plan. However, Norris is determined to cock a snook to the grand designs of the Creator and so does everything in his power to foil the Adjustment Bureau’s efforts to keep him and Elise apart, even if it costs him (and her) two brilliant careers.
This was the point at which I realised nobody was out to assassinate or blackmail Norris and it became clear that what was actually at stake was the love of a good woman (oh and the Presidency of the United States if he doesn’t give her up). In that sense it’s a very old fashioned kind of movie, in spite of its sci-fi flirtations and neo-noir leanings. While its romantic elements are delivered with conviction and no small degree of charm, the rest of the movie just doesn’t provide the thrills I strongly suspect Director George Nolfi intended. When a movie makes such great play of its chase sequences you expect to feel a certain degree of jeopardy but for me this was wholly absent. No doubt these scenes are clever, even enjoyable due to their ingenuity, but there’s never any real sense of peril, the only consequence if Norris fails being that he won’t see Elise again. Not nice for him certainly but he’ll get over it and she seems to get on with her life alright in the three years that they’re apart. As far as the Presidency is concerned he’s made it clear by this point that he’s not really that arsed.
There is some talk from the Adjustment Bureau of erasing Norris’s mind if he reveals the truth but as this threat is delivered by the ever affable Slattery, it’s difficult to believe that they would ever really go that far. After all, they are angels remember, agents of a loving and benevolent God? Even when Thompson (Terence Stamp), a supernatural fixer with a fearsome reputation, is called on to intervene, it doesn’t stop Norris giving him a hefty bunch of fives and easily giving him the slip by virtue of a hat he borrows from an angel sympathetic to his plight. Stamp’s final scene sees his supposed infallibility immediately undermined by a subordinate and the poor man literally shuffles off screen in the manner of a failed music hall comic. The conclusion never seems in doubt.
However, the film features good performances from the leads, the chemistry between Damon and Blunt being particularly potent. Oh sure, she’s the kind of kooky cat who does things like answer his mobile phone before dropping it into his coffee, but in films these things are charming rather than the incitement to throat-throttling that they would be in real life. Damon makes a character who is probably too good to be true just about credible enough for you to be able to buy into a romance that is worth incurring the wrath (well, mild annoyance) of God for. It also looks wonderful, its slick visuals and shiny surfaces making New York look as good as ever.
Fundamentally though, once you get past the wrapping, this is a very familiar story, and one that lacks the depth it could have had when it comes to addressing ideas of free will and self determination. Beneath the fantasy elements that may distract the eye and its squandered potential to thrill, the film represents that most enduring of all Hollywood clichés, which is that love conquers all when two people are meant to be together (even when they’re not).
Extras: Not bad at all, my favourite being The Labyrinth of Doors: An Interactive map of New York. This allows you to follow David and Elsie’s journey through New York in the film’s climactic chase sequence, as well as offering behind the scenes footage from each of the locations.
There are also some interesting featurettes including a look at Blunt’s preparation for the role of a ballet dancer, interviews with cast and crew, a look at the romantic plot and some deleted scenes. Nolfi’s commentary is worth listening to as it is full of technical information as well as his own thoughts on the themes of the movie, even if some of this did confirm that he doesn’t always achieve what he sets out to accomplish.
The Adjustment Bureau is out now on DVD and Blu-ray