Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
March 2011

Fate . . . er, fait accompli?

Surprisingly strong 'The Adjustment Bureau' turns fate vs. free will into a grand romantic gesture

The Adjustment Bureau
Universal Pictures
Director: George Nolfi
Screenplay: George Nolfi, based on the short story Adjustment Team, by Philip K. Dick
Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Michael Kelly, John Slattery, Anthony Mackie and Terence Stamp
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 45 minutes
Opened March 4, 2011
(out of four)

It's rare to see a film whose flaws are transparent and obvious but which manages to work quite well nonetheless. The Adjustment Bureau is one such film - and more than anything else, that's a testament to stars Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, whose performances and shared chemistry carry the weight even when other elements falter from time to time.

In fact, the Damon/Blunt pairing is one of the more convincing screen romances I've seen in a while. Chemistry can't be manufactured, of course; it's either there or it's not, and in this case it's definitely there. But it goes beyond that - you can tell writer/director George Nolfi is invested in the relationship and is intent on making it the film's primary area of concern.

It's funny - we see so many half-baked romantic comedies and grossly manipulative dramatic love stories (cough*Nicholas Sparks*cough), yet here we have a film built around a heady sci-fi scenario, and it manages to give us a far better romance than most of those other movies could ever pull off.

Damon plays hotshot New York politician David Norris, who serendipitously meets Elise (Emily Blunt) in a public restroom on the night his bid for Congress falls just short. As Meet Cutes go, this one is fantastic - their repartee is charming without being overtly forced, and the way Nolfi sets up an awkward scenario (she was hiding out in a men's bathroom stall for reasons that don't need explaining here) and takes advantage of it, giving Elise something of an upper hand as she quickly dazzles her way into David's heart.

Of course, it can't just be that easy for the two of them. But wouldn't you know it, the obstacles that naturally have to come between our leads actually play sensibly into the film's larger premise. So often, those obstacles are such lazy screenplay creations that it's virtually impossible to take the characters seriously. (See: How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, Serendipity, just about anything with Katherine Heigl in it, etc.)

In all honesty, if you wanted to get really clever about it, you could argue that The Adjustment Bureau serves as a kind of commentary on all those other terrible romantic movies - in that it addresses head-on the issues of predestination, fate and free will so many of those others use as idiotic contrivances.

What's keeping David and Elise apart is the fact that they are literally not supposed to be together - so say the members of the titular bureau, a group of shady men in fedoras who "make sure things go according to plan."

The "plan" is the one written by "the Chairman" - an unseen and unnamed figure that we can take as an ambiguous, fill-in-the-blank representation of whatever god or otherworldly force one believes ties the universe together.

The agents who oversee everything and everyone are allowed to make subtle alterations to make sure things proceed as they should - just not so much that they cause a mass ripple effect. The plan, it seems, has a little bit of wiggle room - but only a little bit.

Which is why David is causing such a problem for Richardson (John Slattery), Harry (Anthony Mackie) and the rather intimidating Thompson (Terence Stamp), all of whom are charged with the task of making sure our lovestruck heroes never see one another again. He just won't stop trying to find her. Chance does the agents no favors, as it keeps throwing David and Elise together.

Quite accidentally, David sees "behind the curtain," discovering the agents at work - think Dark City whenever the clock strikes midnight - in a sequence that works well in large part because it recognizes the humor in the situation. The rules, once David discovers the truth, dictate that he can never tell anyone what he's just seen - at the risk of having his mind erased (or "reset") completely.

Nolfi is a first-time director whose previous writing credits included such unfortunate films as Timeline, The Sentinel and Ocean's Twelve. (You can see why I wasn't particularly optimistic going in.) But he does a pretty decent job here, keeping the film - loosely based on a Philip K. Dick short story - chugging along at a nice clip and throwing in some nice touches along the way. And, as I've already mentioned, Damon and Blunt do an excellent job carrying the movie on their backs when they have to.

The Adjustment Bureau is hampered by the fact that it cuts too many corners - an issue that could have been at least partially avoided if the movie were allowed a longer run time. Given its central conceit, it also could have used some more adventurous direction - maybe from someone who would have taken the opportunity (and risk) of following the premise a bit further toward its deepest implications.

Still, minor grievances aside, the film manages to work pretty well as a twisty sci-fi thriller, and even better as a romance - and neither of those things, as so many other films have proven, is an easy task.

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