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YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

‘The Adjustment Bureau': a cheeky surprise

Matt Damon stars in the romantic thriller "The Adjustment Bureau" as a man who glimpses the future planned for him and realizes he wants something else. To get it, he must pursue the only woman he's ever loved (Emily Blunt) and defy the agents of Fate — a mysterious group of men exerting control over their lives. Courtesy photo

By
March 4, 2011 |

Provocative drama gets an added boost from its two stars

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.

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. 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.

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.

But 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.

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. 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”). “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.

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 subtleties I missed the first time.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com

‘The Adjustment Bureau’

Four stars

Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Terence Stamp, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly

Rating: PG-13, for profanity and sexuality

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