Friday, March 4, 2011

Metaphysical Phooey (That Works): The Adjustment Bureau

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

“The Adjustment Bureau,” loosely based on a short story by Phillip K. Dick, is a strange movie; a blend of romantic comedy conventions, science fiction set-ups, fairy tale cliches, and metaphysical phooey that, ultimately, works in its own little way.

Matt Damon stars as David Norris, an up-and-coming politician running for New York senator. On the eve of the election, the newspapers pick up on evidence of an impulsive immaturity in his recent past, and he tanks at the polls. That same evening, he meets-cute with Elise (Emily Blunt), a ballet dancer with whom he has an immediate and mutual attraction, though she pulls a Cinderella, disappearing without giving him a last name, or a phone number.

Almost a year later, he is rising from the ashes of his political loss when he meets Elise once again. It is around this time that the dandy men in hats who have been hovering around David reveal their true purpose, and the film’s sci-fi set-up: Mankind’s lives are, for the most part, a series of carefully planned events, overseen by Adjustment Agents whose boss is known only as “The Chairman.”

Yes, God is a company CEO, and angels are mad men flipping through moleskin notebooks.

David has, through no fault of his own, strayed from the path set out for him, and this needs to be rectified or else he, Elise, and by implication, the entire world will suffer dire consequences. Should he follow his heart or his fate?

Yes, all of this sounds rather hokey, and the “science” in this fiction is relegated to magic hats and doors. But Damon–who is as affable and funny here as he tends to be on the talk show circuit–and Blunt–who has a natural humor herself–keep the film afloat. There’s no doubt their characters are meant to be together, and they even manage to completely sell the most trite of fairy tale tropes: the magical kiss.

There are not a lot of explosions or showstopping CG effects in the film, and the ads and trailer make it seem a lot more…exciting than it actually is. But that’s not a bad thing. First time director George Nolfi, (he previously wrote “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Ocean’s Twelve”), seems more interested in character than spectacle, and has cast the film well across the board: “Mad Men”‘s John Slattery plays an adjustment agent not too far from his Roger Sterling character, and Terence Stamp is suitably menacing as a kind of “cleaner” agent. Even Jon Stewart and James Carville make cameos. Be sure, there are moments of genuine suspense and awe to be found in the movie, but this is not this year’s “Inception,” and thank God–or the Chairman–for that.

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