Monday, June 20, 2011

On DVD: "The Adjustment Bureau"

Hollywood clearly can make movies like The Adjustment Bureau, and that’s why it’s so depressing that they so seldom do. For here is a film that is clever, thoughtful, and intelligent—in addition to being snazzy, sparkly, funny, exciting, and romantic. It is a good old-fashioned entertainment, yet is simultaneously provocative and challenging. We can do this kind of movie. We do it better than anyone in the world. Yet, more often than not, we decide to do Fast Five or Transformers 3-D instead, and that is our loss.

It is the directorial debut of George Nolfi, whose previous credits include the screenplay for the much-derided (though not by this writer) Ocean’s Twelve and the third Boune movie (he co-wrote with series regular Tony Gilroy). His screenplay here is based on the Philip K. Dick story “Adjustment Team,” and as with the best of Dick’s work, it is science fiction in the best sense—keenly interested in ideas rather than ray guns. Nolfi introduces us to New York congressman David Norris (Matt Damon) in an opening montage deliberately played like a campaign ad; the smiling, handsome young Brooklyn politico is seemingly poised to float into a New York Senate seat. But Norris has a bit of an impulse problem, and a sketchy past that comes back to haunt him in the campaign’s eleventh hour. He ends up losing the race, but the night isn’t a total bust: as he’s preparing his concession speech, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt), a beautiful dancer, and the spark is immediate. She disappears, but he is inspired to give a no-nonsense takedown of politics-as-usal that becomes a viral sensation and immediately resurrects his political possibilities.

But this is where it gets complicated. Due to circumstances too complicated to summarize here, Norris becomes aware that he is under the surveillance of a team of “adjusters”—dark-suited men in fedoras who occasionally step in to ensure that the lives of everyday people progress according to “the plan,” as set forth by “the chairman.” Are they angels? Is the chairman God? Perhaps; the movie is too interesting to do more than hint. What is certain is that David and Elise meeting again and falling in love is not part of “the plan,” and if David bucks the plan, there will be consequences—particularly once Thompson (aka “The Hammer”) takes over the case, and since Thompson is played by Terence Stamp, we’re inclined to believe he means business.

On some level, this could all be seen as fundamentally silly. The dialogue of the adjusters, who are played as varying levels of middle managers (at one point, John Slattery’s Richardson shrugs “It’s above my pay grade”), is full of talk of getting “a briefcase” for “a reset” or even “a full recalibration,” since the “ripple effects” are too great; the adjusters also have the ability to use regular doors to portal from one part of New York to another, as long as they have on their magic fedoras. None of this should work, but it does, primarily because Nolfi basically takes the story seriously, but still maintains a sense of humor that punctures the deadly solemnity that so often sinks this kind of picture.

Much of that humor is found in the terrific relationship between Damon and Blunt, who couldn’t be better together; their chemistry is wickedly good, as it must be for the story to work, and when he says “holy shit” at the end of their first scene, you can’t imagine a more appropriate response. Blunt is a perpetually underrated actress, but she puts across exactly the right combination of romantic longing and bad-girl recklessness; you don’t question for a moment that he would spend three years hoping to find her again. Damon has, quite simply, never been better; between his dashing romanticism, good humor, and stubborn-man-of-action finesse, he (for the first time) legitimately recalls Cary Grant.

The supporting cast is aces (the wonderful Anthony Mackie and always-welcome David Kelly provide able support), and Nolfi’s direction is brisk, confident, and effective. He does so many things so well, all at the same time, that the film is a minor miracle (if you’ll pardon the expression)—it asks the eternal questions of free will within religious dogma, creates a genuine rooting interest in a romantic coupling, and includes an electrifying chase sequence where you actually care about the outcome. The fact that all of this not only works, but works so well, is downright thrilling.

The Adjustment Bureau is not a timid movie; it is one that you have to give yourself over to, and go with. It risks, quite frequently, looking rather ridiculous. It is not. It’s one of the year’s best films.

"The Adjustment Bureau" hits DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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