It’s impossible to watch The Adjustment Bureau and not be reminded of several other films. An unavoidable conceptual comparison to The Matrix (1999); there are elements that brought to mind the brilliant Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004); there’s even a moment towards the end of the film when you cannot help but think of The Wizard of Oz (1939). Yes, that Wizard of Oz.
The difference, however, is that those films are exceptional. The Adjustment Bureau is not.
Written and directed by George Nolfi, making his directorial debut here, The Adjustment Bureau misses its mark on almost every level. And that should come as no surprise, really, considering Nolfi’s credits include the weakest of the three ‘Bourne’ films, The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), The Sentinel (2006), and the unnecessary Ocean’s 12 (2004). It is a script that takes way too much for granted and then requires far too many quantum leaps of faith to keep us even remotely connected to the ridiculous premise.
It begins with handsome young Senatorial candidate, ‘David Norris’ (Matt Damon), stumping in a brisk New England setting, looking every inch a Kennedy. Next is an obnoxious montage of media blips highlighting the young politician’s popularity, complete with a Jon Stewart appearance, a handshake with Jesse Jackson, an elbow rub with Madeline Albright, and countless magazine and newspaper headlines declaring him the next wonderboy. Until…
…a photo emerges from a frat prank the knucklehead politician never saw coming – a drunken mooning episode. DOH! The shame! Now he cannot win. No way. Even James Carville says it’s just too much to overcome, so it must be. “The guy’s a loose cannon!”
So, election night brings us poor ‘David,’ glumly watching the exit polls with his aids at the Waldorf Hotel. He ends up alone in the men’s room, pacing, agonizing over his missed opportunity, struggling to come up with the right words to face his constituents and deliver a concession speech, wishing that confounded frat photo had never sunk his battleship, when…out of one of the stalls walks the dreamy and aggressively glib, ‘Elise’ (Emily Blunt).
The sparks fly immediately between these two – I know this because of the alternating closeups of both stars staring and grinning at each other like mental patients. But then the sassy and glib (yes, I used the same adjective twice) ‘Elise’ has to skedaddle. Turns out she was crashing a wedding on the fifth floor and now the security guards are hot on her tail…I mean trail.
Poor ‘David.’ Not only did he lose the election, now he’s lost the love of his life. JFK he is not!
But all is not lost, as it turns out. ‘Elise’ so mesmerized the candidate that he drops his political rhetoric and speaks plain English to his peeps during his concession speech. He informs them that his campaign dished out $7,300 to a consultant to consult him on the “perfect amount of scuff” for his shoes. Too shiny and he loses the common man. Too scuffed and he loses the bankers and Wall Street fat cats he needs to fund his gravy train. You still with me?
Immediate turnaround in public perception for ‘David Norris.’ The New York Post calls it an “Electrifying Concession Speech!”
By now we are supposed to be: (1) cynical about politicians & the media (2) pulling for our two young lovers to reunite (3) wondering when all the cool guys in hats that we saw in the trailers are going to enter the action and start dong Matrix stuff.
Let me put this mildly. They are not worth the wait. Especially when it becomes painfully clear that, in sharp contrast to The Matrix, the puppet masters in this story are actually tentacles from above. Yep, they work for the Big Guy upstairs, or as this film refers to him, “The Chairman.” And, while I’m not quite sure what this film’s angle or commentary on religion ultimately is, my God-fearing and Christian friends can at least take comfort in this: God’s henchmen drive shiny Chevy Suburbans and wear very smart suits, with a strong preference towards charcoal and tweed.
When the leader of the tweed gang, ‘Richardson,’ first confronts the dumfounded ‘David,’ the confused lad utters the brilliant “Who are you guys?” He is met with “We are the people who make sure things go to plan.” But ‘Richardson’ (John Slattery) doesn’t stop there in his explanation of their mission statement. “We nudge people back on to their plan.” Then “We re-calibrate.” Ok, ok, we get it. But, unlike that cool moment in The Matrix, when ‘Neo’ sees the cat on the stair case and experiences deja vu (“a glitch in the matrix”), all of this exposition leaves us wishing Keanu Reeves would drop in and roundhouse kick the lot of ’em – Damon included, who does a feeble job of displaying the requisite incredulity to his unfolding circumstances.
Now back to the love story. Apparently ‘David’ and ‘Elise’ were only supposed to meet long enough for her to inspire him in the head (pun intended) and get his political train back on track. They weren’t supposed to fall in love. That was not part of the ‘plan.’ So, the charcoal suit gang now has to chase ‘David’ all over Greenwich Village and Soho to keep him from tracking down the girl from The Devil Wears Prada and The Young Victoria.
Blunt survives this film – just barely. The script doesn’t do her any favors, but it also doesn’t ask too much from her, and she does get to show off her modern dance chops – contrived and silly in this particular story – but whatever. The film has bigger problems.
I wish I could say Mad Men’s John Slattery stands out. But he doesn’t. Slattery is a prime example of the type of actor who works perfectly well on the small screen – in small doses. But the big screen requires more presence. Jon Hamm, your job is safe.
Apparently, Damon was instrumental (as the big stars often are) in helping director Nolfi get this film the green light. Curious what Damon saw in the script that led him to believe this premise would work as written. The only possible way it would have worked is if the love story had teeth. But, much like most of The Adjustment Bureau, there is not enough there there to really buy not only the goofy premise but the thematic integrity of the story we are being told.
At one point, ‘Richardson’ is asked by ‘The Chairman’ to make an unconventional alteration to the ‘plan,’ and Slattery responds that it is “above his pay grade.”
Let’s just leave it at that, shall we.