Friday, March 4, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau: Well adjusted!

The Adjustment Bureau (2011) • View trailer for The Adjustment Bureau
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity and sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.4.11

Oooo ... this one’s way-cool.

Catching a preview screening of The Adjustment Bureau several weeks early, before the inevitable media blitz had a chance to ruin any of the clever story’s surprises, reminded me of a similar happy encounter with The Truman Show, back in 1998.
Most guys would be rather startled to find an attractive woman hiding in an
otherwise deserted hotel men's room. David Norris (Matt Damon) is surprised,
to be sure, but he and Elise (Emily Blunt) immediately feel a spark of attraction:
a connective jolt that suggests their lives are destined to be intertwined. But to
what degree? Ah, that's the core of this film's tantalizing mystery.

Paramount must not have known how to handle that atypical Jim Carrey film, because the studio screened it more than a month before it opened. As a result, nobody in the packed theater – Carrey was at the height of his popularity, at the time – had the faintest idea what to expect. I still remember the collective murmurs of surprise, right at the beginning, when the skylight fell with a clank onto the “stage.”

Being part of that crowd, as everybody gradually realized the nature of Andrew Niccol’s marvelous script, was quite a buzz.

My point: We live in a tell-all-now society, which works against stories that derive much of their juice from unusual concepts or unexpected plot twists. Contrary to conventional wisdom, most people don't turn to the final page of a mystery first, to see if the butler did it; we truly do like to be startled and astonished. Why else would films such as The Crying Game and The Sixth Sense have made such a huge impact?

All of which brings us to The Adjustment Bureau, and the cheeky surprises to be found in director/scripter George Nolfi’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story, “Adjustment Team.” Merely mentioning Dick’s name is something of a giveaway in itself; truth be told, I’d prefer that my loyal readers stop reading right here, take my encouragement on faith, and go see the film before, inevitably – despite the care with which the subsequent paragraphs will be constructed – I reveal too much.

Then come back and read the rest of this commentary.

No? Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you...

On the brink of winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, ambitious New York politician David Norris (Matt Damon) sees his carefully choreographed plans shot to bits when a scandal rag unearths and publishes – on election eve – an indelicate photo from his rowdier college days. The blowback is swift and catastrophic, as David’s friend and campaign manager, Charlie (Michael Kelly), understands full well. The two go through the motions on election day, but with poll results coming in, the bleak result comes to pass.

Alone with his regrets in a men’s restroom at the fancy hotel where he had hoped to celebrate his victory, David instead works his way through a “Well, gang, we tried” speech. He’s unexpectedly interrupted by a decidedly female voice, which belongs to a vivaciously sexy ballet dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt), who has been hiding from hotel security because she crashed a wedding elsewhere in the hotel. She’s flustered and apologetic on David’s behalf, having heard what he has been doing, during what he thought was a private moment.

David is bemused, but certainly not irritated.

No reason to be, as it happens. A spark of seductive connection jolts them both to the core; the subsequent meet-cute conversation is playful, witty and just erotic enough. And it’s not just the dialogue; Damon and Blunt exhibit plenty of that magical, smoldering chemistry so essential in the selling of such a scene. It’s a “love at first sight” moment, and we believe it absolutely, despite the utter improbability of the setting. Maybe even because of the setting.

Despite his rising desire to stay with Elise, David must attend to business; he regretfully leaves when Charlie retrieves him. David’s final glimpse of Elise is of her running, ducking down a flight of stairs to escape the hotel guards who have spotted her anew.

Then, in the hotel ballroom, facing his staff and a room filled with loyal constituents, David goes off-book and delivers one of those magically spontaneous speeches: the perfect blend of humility, self-deprecation, candor and homespun wisdom. Again, Damon nails the moment unerringly, his pauses and rueful head shakes the impeccable image of a guy baring his soul at a moment when he probably shouldn’t ... but plunging ahead nonetheless.

David certainly can’t know it at the time, but that speech is destined to resonate, and quite strongly.

And, watching from the periphery, a shadowy, three-piece-suited figure – who wears a hat with easy grace – smiles tightly and seems satisfied, for some unknowable reason.

Three years pass; David has retreated to the life and career of a white-collar professional. One average morning, fate magically strikes: As he boards his usual bus, he spots Elise sitting by herself. Despite the passage of time, the same bolt of electrical attraction draws them just as close, once again.

By now, we’re wondering precisely where all this is leading. And that, of course, is the tantalizing enchantment of Nolfi’s script: We really have no idea.

Indeed, the compelling characters aside, The Adjustment Bureau is blandly ordinary during its first act ... perhaps even slow. We’ve seen dozens of stories about idealistic politicians, going back to Jimmy Stewart’s naïve passion in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and we’ve certainly watched countless love stories unfold. Nolfi doesn’t tip his hand either way, so we’re not sure whether his film will turn into a passionate romance or a political journey. (Answer: neither.) The uncertainty, initially only an itch, blossoms into full-blown mystery.

Because there’s no denying the odd behavior of these various guys in three-piece suits, and their unusually stiff body language: as if, somehow, they don’t belong in their surroundings.

Nolfi is no stranger to unusual stories that move in unexpected, often suspenseful directions, having cut his teeth adapting novels by Michael Crichton (Timeline) and Gerald Petievich (The Sentinel). Nolfi also scripted Ocean’s Twelve and the final (so far) entry in Damon’s Jason Bourne series, The Bourne Ultimatum. Clearly, Nolfi knows his way around a sharp, savvy and witty screenplay; the pleasant surprise is that he has made a smooth transition to the director’s chair. The Adjustment Bureau is Nolfi’s first time at the helm, and I’d say he can anticipate a solid career as a director; he draws engaging and completely credible performances from Damon, Blunt and half a dozen key supporting players.

First among the latter is Anthony Mackie, as Harry, a rather unexpected ally as circumstances threaten to overwhelm our hero. John Slattery is equally credible as the bureaucratic, mildly officious Richardson: certainly not a good guy, in any sense of the phrase, but also not malevolent.

That latter trait more accurately describes Thompson, played with chilling menace by Terence Stamp (who excels at such roles).

Nolfi and cinematographer John Toll (an Oscar winner for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart) frame the “beats” of their story well, often building unease with the identity-diminishing wide shots and cockeyed angles that are so strong an element in dozens of 1940s and ’50s film noir entries. Such tilts come at jarring moments: Everything can look and feel calm and ordinary, and then – blink! – disorientation sets in.

And while this certainly isn’t a special effects-laden narrative, Nolfi gets excellent use from the clever and unsettling revelations this story does employ.

Fans of the long-deceased Philip K. Dick know the degree to which the famed sci-fi author toyed with the notion of destiny versus free will in so many of his stories and novels; this one is no different. Nolfi has done the author proud, by opening up Dick’s short story and transforming it into that rarest of cinematic critters: an intelligent real-world fantasy that establishes firm (if unusual) rules and then plays by them.

We can enjoy The Adjustment Bureau merely for the increasingly tantalizing pairing of Damon and Blunt; we also can appreciate the film for the way Nolfi respects our intelligence, and builds his story to such an intriguing conclusion.

Can’t wait to watch this one again, to seek out details and subtlties I missed the first time.

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