Friday, March 4, 2011

Should You Join Up With THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU ...?


- I suspect that The Adjustment Bureau is going to be a somewhat divisive movie. In some ways, there's a lot to like about it. In particular, if you go in simply looking for a light, relatively breezy romance with some supernatural elements, you may come away plenty satisfied. However, if the film's marketing led you to believe that this was, in fact, a more hardcore sort of sci-fi movie, a mind-bender on par with movies like Inception - I think you will likely come way fairly disappointed. The fact is, the movie is somewhat "soft" sci-fi. It presents an admittedly charming love story, but the real selling point of the film (to me) - its examination of fate vs. free will - is never taken as seriously or examined as thoroughly as I would have liked.

Like I said though, the movie is definitely charming if nothing else. As soon as our hero, a young would-be Senator played Matt Damon, meets a mysterious dancer, played by Emily Blunt, it's love at first sight for them, and for us, it's easy to buy into. The two stars have an easygoing, believable chemistry, and there's a lot of fun banter between them. It's easy to imagine a version of the movie where, stripped of all the supernatural stuff, it's just an interesting little romance about a slightly edgy senator and the free-spirited woman who falls for him. Damon and Blunt both do a great job, particularly when they're just doing ordinary boy-meets-girl sorts of things. The strange thing though is that the two do such a good job of coming off as natural and believable, that it's ultimately pretty jarring when the movie shifts to sci-fi mode. The contrast in tonalities is almost too much, and the movie ends up having to walk a very fine line between treating its supernatural element with a light, whimsical touch and simply coming off as goofy and groan-worthy.

At first, Matt Damon's encounters with the enigmatic members of The Adjustment Bureau - the men who ensure that our collective fates play out as they are meant to - are suitably creepy and interesting. Dressed in ominous-looking hats-and-trenchcoats, the Bureau members - including the likes of John Slattery, Terence Stamp, and Anthony Mackie - call to mind the similarly-dressed, otherworldly watchers in such films and TV shows as Dark City and Fringe. But soon enough, despite the inherent awesomeness of the actors mentioned above, the Bureau team becomes less threatening and more ridiculous. They have lame "rules" - like a weakness against water and a reliance on their hats as a source of power - that are more chuckle-worthy than cool. And there's the fact that despite being near-omnipotent beings, they're always having to run around New York City on foot in pursuit of Matt Damon. Anthony Mackie sort of pulls it off, but seeing middle-aged Slattery and senior citizen Stamp have to hoof it to try to track down Damon is sort of comical.

From a visual perspective as well, the movie feels surprisingly mundane. There's not a ton of visual flair or atmospheric touches. You might expect this sort of movie to have some pretty trippy moments or mind-bending sorts of sequences, but not really - it all feels pretty plain. Indeed, I was more surprised by the film's opening montage of Damon with a barrage of high-profile poilticians who turn in cameos - from Mayor Bloomberg to Jesse Jackson - than I was with any particular action or f/x sequence. Actually, I thought the heavy use of real-world cameos - from John Stewart to James Carville - while at times funny, rooted the movie almost too heavily in reality.

Overall though, I just felt like the movie posited some intriguing questions, but never took them to their logical extremities. We know that Damon and Blunt are not "supposed to" be together, but we never really understand why. We know that the Bureau guys seem to want Damon to have this great political career, but again, we never really understand why. We never *really* seem to know the stakes. To that end, the perspective of the Bureau comes off as perpetually weak and baseless. Why do they really care if Damon and Blunt hook up? Again, the movie never fully explores any of the possible timelines it sets up - there's just this very vague notion that if Damon and Blunt end up together, well, it won't be good for them in some mysterious, cosmic sense. There is a lot of pseudo-theological talk, but it all just has an air of spotty new-agey blandness. To me, the whole thing felt half-baked - an intriguing premise without any real follow-through - and certainly never approaching the jaw-dropping conceptual extremes of movies like Dark City.

Instead, much of the movie ends up just being Matt Damon running through New York, trying to evade the persistant pursuers of the Bureau (and oddly, sometimes they seem able to appear wherever they want, and sometimes they have to amusingly run after him, as I mentioned above). When Damon, with the help of Mackie's sympathetic Bureau member, finally hatches a plan to outrun the Bureau guys in order to track down his one true love, the plan comes off as so silly that it took me out of the movie. To that end, the movie in my mind could have been saved by really ending with a bang - some huge reveal that tied everything together and served as that big "aha!" moment that the movie really needs. Unfortunately, things end with a pretty predictable and unremarkable wimper - I won't spoil things, but the ending is sort of proof that this movie never really aspired to be much more than a high-concept romance. And that, to me - especially given that this is based on a Philip K. Dick story - is disappointing.

As a send-'em-home-happy romance, The Adjustment Bureau gets the job done, and as a date movie it certainly isn't a bad choice. But again, given that the concept seemed so ambitious, with so many intriguing story possibilities at its core, it's too bad that the film didn't go all-out to really try and blow our minds. This isn't a cerebral movie at all, which I realize, is fine for some. But with some excellent performances from a talented and charismatic cast (you really do root for Damon and Blunt to end up together), I have to imagine that this one could have - with the right creative vision behind it - taken a different and much more satisfying path. I guess it simply wasn't meant to be.

My Grade: B-

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