Gentlemen, if you were looking for an original excuse about not calling a girl back, try this one on for size: I couldn’t call because a team of men who control human destiny told me that if I did they would erase my memory and keep you from the fame that you are destined to achieve. She’ll probably at least give you points for originality before throwing a drink in your face (but it was all part of The Plan, or was it?).
David Norris (Matt Damon) has just lost a New York congressional election thanks to his frat boy ways of old resurfacing. As he composes his concession speech inside the men’s restroom, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt), a ballet dancer hiding out. They have one of those crazy only-in-a-movie conversations that manages to feel authentic. Then they kiss. She inspires him to ditch his prepared remarks and speak from the heart to the national TV audience, which eats it up. David spends the rest of his days trying to meet the enchanting Elise again. Then he runs into a big stumbling block. He’s late to a meeting and catches a group of mysterious men in suits and fedoras fiddling around with people frozen like statues. They are the adjusters, the ones who ensure that the participants of mankind follow The Plan. These are the people responsible for the illusion of choice in our lives. If we deviate too far from The Plan, causing ripple effects that too need to be accounted for and adjusted, they step in. Richardson (John Slattery) is the spokesmen for the group and decides to just level with David. He is not supposed to be with Elise. He has a different future ahead of him, so sayeth The Plan. They will throw obstacles between the two of them. David seeks out Elise and fights against the whole universe for the two of them to make a future together.
Horrible title aside, The Adjustment Bureau is a sometimes corny but often deeply satisfying movie. It may distract with some efficient and just-smart-enough sci-fi leanings and magic tricks, but it’s really a unabashed romance at its core. Not just that, it’s a good romance, once that flutter the heart and causes the ends of your mouth to do that thing, you know – smile. It helps when you have movie tars as gorgeous as Blunt and Damon, and are such good actors that they can fill their roles with dangerous amounts of charm, but let’s credit writer/director George Nolfi (The Bourne Ultimatum, Ocean’s Twelve). He takes a fairly routine concept (powerful forces control our lives and choices) and turns it into a finely tuned character-driven romance. Immediately from their first meeting in a men’s room, Blunt and Damon have that electric dynamic that you can genuinely believe in. Their chemistry will knock you over. You feel the spark between these two, which is essential because the two characters spend years apart at times, forever hoping to reunite. In that brief encounter, you fall in love as well and realize that this character, and this actress, is worth waiting for. I think people are going to be surprised that The Adjustment Bureau is a big gooey, stars-in-the-eyes love story, and it’s actually good. It’s a really enchanting love story, tackling the question of whether whom we love is a result of choice or destiny. This central concept is what every sci-fi element and thriller sequence is spun from. Here’s a funny thought: it’s all in service to the story.
It’s rare to see a studio movie that mixes so many different elements together to such effective, satisfying results. The film doesn’t get overly dark despite the cosmically long-reach and determination of the adjusters. There’s never any real threat of danger, only a broken heart or dashed dreams. The film has many light moments throughout, creating a rather bouncy tone that suits the romance angle nicely. The adjusters aren’t very menacing, more so comically perturbed. John Slattery, all silvery Mad Men appeal, is a perfect foil as the face of the adjusters. He feels like an exasperated parent baffled by the thought-processes of his youthful charge. It helps that these cosmic accounting agents have a finite level of power. If they had unlimited power then the film would fail to have any hope for David and Elise. But we learn that there are only so many adjusters that there are limitations to their powers, and that they can be outsmarted with enough gumption. Mingling with that light touch is enough whimsical science fiction to engage your brain. The concept of the adjusters and their supernatural abilities is nicely teased, setup, and then developed, making sure never to rock the audience with too much weirdness at one time. It’s a gradual process of discovery and it leads to a somewhat goofy, but infectiously amusing, climax that involves multiple doorway portals and magic hats. Yes, I said magic hats, which means there is an honest to God good reason why that stupid fedora hat, seen so prominently in advertising that it feels like the third-billed star, is featured. Admittedly, a concept like a magic hat that allows you to teleport through doorways would seem silly, but Nolfi makes it all work. The hardest aspect to believe (in a film with, I repeat, magic hats) is that Blunt could be a ballet dancer, let alone a future star of the medium. I’m by no means saying that the British beauty has anything to worry about in appearance, but she does not have a ballet dancer’s dangerously minuscule physique. Natalie Portman in Black Swan looked like a real-deal ballerina of fragile frame. Blunt doesn’t have the movement or the physique.
In his directorial debut, Nolfi does enough good things, and does them with a smooth sense of style, to impress. The visual trick of going in one door and opening to another world walks a dangerous line of over saturation, but it’s playfully utilized enough to forgive. Nolfi is not perfect with his plotting, falling to misstep that can push back momentum. Characters will be chatting, and then they’ll walk away and we’ll get a title card that says something like, “Three years later,” and it sort of makes it feel like we have to start all over again. The fact that this happens more than once means that Nolfi might have wanted to plot his story around a series of events that occurred more often than Senate election terms. If we have to begin with David losing one campaign at the start and then zoom ahead at several points through another campaign, then perhaps the timeline could have been condensed a bit in retrospect. The film manages to be religious and faith affirming without pushing an agenda or overstating its romantic cause. The ones behind the plan are only referenced in oblique business terms, never confirming a certain high power but definitely nodding in that general direction.
Damon and Blunt are a terrific team. This is easily Blunt’s finest role as an actress since breaking out in 2006’s Devil Wears Prada. The actress has taken many a role that makes use of her large crystalline eyes and her sometimes go-to acting response of simpering. But in this film, she finally finds that perfect role that makes use of Blunt’s modest, goofy charm. She’s never been a leading actress in a traditional set; there’s always been a delightful goofy appeal that set her apart. When Blunt offers her playful smiles and asserts those glassy eyes of hers, you too will be smitten. Her character is a charming woman thanks to Nolfi’s writing, but having an actress of Blunt’s ability fill her out is a blessing. Damon is at a point in his career where he just grinds out good-to-great performances that manage to be convincing in unassuming, dignified ways. Damon has never been an actor given to the superfluous. His character feels like a sincere sport, which is amazing considering he’s supposed to be playing a politician. He’s the kind of guy you’d actually stand in the rain to vote for, and you understand why Elise would keep a place tucked away deep in her heart for the dashing Damon.
While the movie hinges on the coupling of Damon and Blunt, the rest of the supporting cast does fine work matching tone and making the most of their roles. Actors like Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker), Terrence Stamp (Valkyrie), and Michael Kelly (Changling) can make any movie better.
The Adjustment Bureau, on paper, should not work. A sci-fi fantasy that’s unapologetically grounded in romance. A tone that nestles firmly in a safe, bubble-wrapped whimsy. And those magic hats, need we forget them? On paper this should be one overly silly, dumb, tonally disjointed, cornball movie worth venomous mocking. And yet it works; it does better than “works,” it succeeds. Blunt and Damon are terrifically charming together and imbue the movie with a sense of cheerful optimism in the face of uncertainty (and perhaps heaven itself). You desperately want these two crazy kids to get back together; they’re good, decent, charming people, winning personalities apart and even better together. What might have fallen apart in other hands becomes this endearing, fizzy piece of studio entertainment that fulfills and exceeds most expectations. I was really taken by this movie, won over by its effusive charm offensive, and left buoyant with happiness by the time the tidy, perhaps too tidy ending, came rolling. The Adjustment Bureau is hooey but it’s my kind of hooey.
Nate’s Grade: A-