The Adjustment Bureau
Directed by George Nolfi
The Adjustment Bureau is the most surprising movie I’ve seen in ages, a full-fledged, unabashed, swoony romance in the guise of a paranoid science-fiction thriller. Every romance is about a couple meant to be together that must navigate and overcome the obstacles the movie strews in their path. The Adjustment Bureau turns this on its head. It’s a movie about two people who are not supposed to be together. The force pulling Matt Damon and Emily Blunt apart isn’t family, or career, or an inconvenient partner. It’s God. God Himself doesn’t want them to be together. How can two people overcome that? And should they?
The writer-director George Nolfi never quite figures out an answer to those questions, but it was very clever of him to set up the movie in this way. For one thing, it obliges him to create an immensely attractive and likable couple for whom the audience can begin to root almost from the moment they lock eyes on each other. It’s no small achievement that he succeeds in this task better than any American has since the heyday of Nora Ephron, and without Meg Ryan or Tom Hanks in the roles.
That’s not just a matter of casting—although an inspired Nolfi did cast the two lead roles with Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, who between them have twice as much charm and charisma as would be needed to harmonize the spheres. What Nolfi forced upon himself was a difficult storytelling challenge, and he rose to it with an entrancing portrait of a couple magnetically attracted to each other, even though they are literally not supposed to be.
Entrancing is—surprise again—exactly the word to describe The Adjustment Bureau for most of its running time. There’s something blissed-out about it. The movie owes a lot to Wim Wenders’s ridiculously pretentious but beautifully photographed Wings of Desire, about an angel who falls in love with a suicidal Berliner he is supposed to be watching over. (It was remade, unpretentiously but drippily, with the self-same Meg Ryan, as City of Angels.) Wings of Desire turned Berlin into a black-and-white fantasia. The Adjustment Bureau is set in an entirely realistic yet simultaneously otherworldly Manhattan, which master cinematographer John Toll casts in glistening gray shadow unless the lovers are together, in which case the city glitters and glows.
The angels here aren’t the loving and empathic creatures from Wings of Desire; they are 1960s organization men who work in the Chrysler Building and have standard-issue names like Richardson and Donaldson and Thompson. They have no interest in the feelings and wishes of their charges; their role is to make sure the universal plan designed by “the Chairman” goes as designed, and to get ahead as best they can. They don’t mean ill, but they don’t mean well, either, except maybe for one very tired immortal who throws off the universal plan by falling asleep on a park bench.
This is the sole detail that survives from the Philip K. Dick story from which The Adjustment Bureau derives. Dick, the paranoid schizophrenic whose strange and peerless talent it was to capture with crystalline clarity the worldview of a paranoid schizophrenic, imagined an ordinary man who literally sees reality melting away because a dog barks at the wrong time. He discovers that reality itself is a falsehood, and must then live out the rest of his middle-class days with that knowledge.
Nolfi’s hero isn’t a passive ordinary man. He is David Norris (Damon), the youngest elected member of Congress—a natural leader and compelling speaker who has an odd tendency to let loose and act on crazy impulse. He sabotages his own rising career through antics like getting into bar brawls and behaving inappropriately at college reunions. He is at low ebb when he encounters Elise (Blunt) in an empty men’s room at the Waldorf-Astoria. The scene between them is a triumph, and if the entire movie had been at its level, it would have been
It’s not, because Nolfi can’t figure his way out of the box he’s created. He gracefully sidesteps the sci-fi argle-bargle of The Matrix by making David’s discovery that everybody is being manipulated seem like no big deal. He is so headstrong he doesn’t really care that he’s been shown the truth behind the curtain; he’s got his own plans and he’s going to carry them out. But the only way David can do that is through careless plotting and Swiss-cheese storytelling. He seems able to fake out omnipotence, and even in the movie’s own terms, that doesn’t seem plausible or possible.