The Matt in the hat.
The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
Having not seen it since it came out, I’d been meaning to rewatch and review The Adjustment Bureau for a while. It had its terrestrial premiere last night and so I figured I’d strike whilst the iron was lukewarm. The main impetus for this review, however, was this rather nasty piece appearing in The Guardian. The writer, Stuart Heritage, basically slates the film in the smug, snarky way that I’ve just got so sick of reading lately. You should know by now that I love a good sneer, but the way these people write makes me seriously doubt their love of film and/or journalism. If it’s so fucking tortuous mate, Burger King are probably hiring. Anyway, the whole piece made me furrow my brow at the odd things he picked up on and his statement about the script being made up of insipid nothings and cloying Hallmark mawkishness. Well, them’s fightin’ words.
“Who the hell are you guys?”
“We… are the people that make sure things happen according to plan.”
The Adjustment Bureau follows Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon) as he runs for the Senate. He meets a dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt) and they instantly fall for each other. However, they lose contact and Norris becomes obsessed with finding her. Little does David know that there’s a shadowy agency called The Adjustment Bureau who are hell-bent on keeping them apart. Matt Damon is the likeable everyman he’s been in other films and he plays it well here. OK, so the “unlucky honest politician who sincerely wants to make the world a better place” angle is hackneyed, but you feel for Norris. He’s got some actual humanity to him and Damon’s a huge part of that. Emily Blunt isn’t really stretching herself either (acting wise- some of her ballet moves must require a ridiculous level of flexibility) but again, it works. The two make a believable pairing and you want them to succeed.
The thing I like about Bureau is that it’s basically something like The Notebook put through a sci-fi thriller filter. How many romantic films have you seen where the two leads meet randomly, sparks fly and after that they just can’t quite seem to get it together, constantly getting separated by various obstacles, misunderstandings and general bad luck? The film even goes so far as to include elements like her having a fiancé (i.e. a relationship serious enough to be an obstacle to our power couple, but still has enough wiggle room to be broken off) and him having a close friend who, like totally understands bro, and is there to confide in and give advice. In an age of an “Ah, fuck it, whatever” approach to greenlighting and moviemaking, The Adjustment Bureau tries something new and, to my mind at least, succeeds. The film isn’t about two special and attractive people who are just perfect for each other. It’s about every lightning bolt encounter and the start of a fresh, passionate and exciting relationship. It’s a universal message. Shit, I’ve felt something similar and the notches on my bedpost barely qualify as a scuff. Usually, our two romantic leads are sketched as broadly as possible so as to appeal to the largest possible audience. It’s the same here, except it’s not stupid things like “he’s too much of a manchild” or “she’s clumsy”. It’s smartly done. The misunderstandings and bumps along the way inherent to romantic films are personified by the Bureau, meddling and twisting things to fit some big plan.
One of Heritage’s odder points is that the only reason the film works at all “is thanks to the audience’s knowledge of the actors, who play concentrated versions of their on-screen personas.” This may seem incredibly obvious, but casting a film can often be seen as filmic shorthand and it’s a form of storytelling in its own right. Elements of both an actor’s personal and professional life are often used when it comes to casting. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man worked because we knew of his insane drugs n’ partying lifestyle beforehand. It fed in to our opinion of Stark and it was a bunch of backstory we brought to the party, fleshing the character out without the need for endless flashbacks and expository dialogue appearing in the film. Pre his recent McConnaissance, you could bet that if Matthew McConaughey signed onto a film, it’d be a dime-a-dozen tossed-out “feelgood” picture featuring him leaning on the poster, because that’s all he did for about 10 years. Same here. Damon and Blunt has been stunt cast to save time. They’re both naturally amiable leads who are easy to root for. They’re everypeople. The film moves at a quick pace and the sooner the audience is on board and buys into the central relationship, the better.
All this chin-stroking and white knighting may lead you to believe that this is the sort of film I want to be buried with. It isn’t. It’s not perfect and has its fair share of flaws and things that stop it from true greatness. The sci-fi element of the Bureau and their powers don’t always mesh convincingly with the standard romantic thrust of the story. Especially when it turns out they have magical hats (cough). I’m not a huge fan of the massive religious overtones at the end, either. Religious symbolism/allegory is fine by me, but when it’s just bunged in at the end in a climactic speech instead of woven carefully into the film, it gives the impression the film is reaching for more and more things that might possibly resonate with the audience. With that particular point, to the film’s credit, it doesn’t explicitly say that they’re angels or whatever, thus avoiding some unfair It’s A Wonderful Life type comparisons.
“I don’t care what you put in my way, I’m not giving up!”
The Adjustment Bureau is a great film. Script wise, the dialogue could have done with a little tightening up here and there as some of the exchanges do border on the wrist-slittingly saccharine, but what the hell, it’s a romantic movie at heart after all- some things you can let slide. As well as doing a decent job of writing, it’s well directed by George Nolfi, who keeps the pace brisk and the tone consistent. The whole cast do what the do best and you can’t argue with that. I like romantic films but I’m often frustrated by how hollow and stupid they are. The Adjustment Bureau proves that with just a little effort and creativity, you can make the hackneyed and well-trodden feel fresh and exciting. Highly recommended.