Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

The Adjustment Bureau is a pleasant film, and quite often to its own detriment. Billed as a “romantic thriller”, it isn’t especially thrilling, or honest in its romanticism. But it tries hard and it means well, and occasionally that’s enough.

Matt Damon stars as New York Congressman David Norris, a man we’re told (through a significant amount of early exposition) is a bit of a troublemaker. He’s young, he’s brash and he wants to be your next governor. Unfortunately those qualities and ambitions aren’t quite jelling – he’s lost the latest election. But while preparing his consolation speech he meets Elise (Emily Blunt) and is instantly smitten. He quickly falls for her, and she just as quickly disappears into the night.

Through careful plot management Norris again runs into Elise on a bus, which effectively messes up the plan of the mysterious fedora-sporting man who’s been following him. Long, manipulative and easily adjusted story short – he gets to his office and sees his friends and colleagues frozen in time and surrounded my more men in fedoras doing creepy fedora man things.

Norris is taken captive and… reasoned with. Because that’s what antagonists should do in a thriller. Mad Men’s John Slattery is the casually charming leader of this fedora bunch – he’ll let Norris go on living his life, as long as he stays away from Elise. Disobey and the bureau will erase his brain. Tell anybody about them – erase the brain. Don’t follow their life plan – erase the brain.

This being a romance story, Norris can’t bring himself to forget Elise, even though they’ve shared all of 6 minutes together. He’s a rebel, baby, and a lover. So he disobeys. And what happens? Well, let’s just say they don’t erase his brain.

Thrillers are all about obstacles and timeliness, about high stakes threats, failures and accomplishments. The Adjustment Bureau plays with low stakes and minor obstacles, and rarely is time ever of the essence. John Slattery is not an imposing bad guy - he’s not actually villainous at all. Half way through, the movie realizes this and introduces Terrence Stamp as a scarier fedora man, but even he’ll only go as far as twisting your ankle. Life? Death? Not a concern.

So let’s just toss out the “thriller” title and chalk it up to faulty advertising. It could easily have been a very strong suspense flick, if writer/director George Nolfi had increased the pressure and applied it consistently (as he did with his script for 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum). But he didn’t. So if you came here looking for that movie, we’re sorry... but here’s Matt Damon!

This leaves the romance, which is generally pretty good. Damon and Blunt have a nice, easy chemistry and their scenes work well. But the pacing is all wrong and the logic is hard to get behind. The story bounces around, uniting the couple for a night here, or a bathroom scene there (two, actually) while splitting them apart for great gaps of time in between. We’re talking months, occasionally years. Yup, YEARS! And by choice! Incredible amounts of time where these “soul mates” aren’t looking for each other, aren’t fighting to be together. They’re just… living. So much for the end all, be all romance.

But hey - here’s Matt Damon! And doesn’t he look dashing today? How about that smile!

Too be fair, Damon is actually very good, as is Blunt. The actors make the most of their rare time together, convincing us to believe in them, in their story and their film. It’s enough to pull at your heart strings, and maybe enough to get you behind their crusade in the final act, where all those “thriller” clips from the trailer reside.

But for me it was just enough to show me what this movie could have been.

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