The Adjustment Bureau

Let me make one thing clear at the outset: The best thing about The Adjustment Bureau is the costume design, which will probably land Kasia Walicka Maimone an Oscar nomination next February for all the various men’s hats and Emily Blunt’s gravity-defying dress. What won’t win any Oscar nods? Anything else from the movie.

Don’t get me wrong, The Adjustment Bureau is an enjoyable enough thriller, with a unique premise, lots of running and chasing and a grand, forbidden love story for the attractive leads. It is a totally enjoyable and diverting movie.

But it could have been so much more. It should have been so much more…

Based (as so many Hollywood projects are) on a short story by the uber-prolific Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall and literally too many others to name), the story posits that everyone’s life operates according to a plan (the Plan, actually), and when a person deviants from that Plan, a group of men in stylish hats (an array of fedoras in felt and straw with short brims, wide brims and even stingy brims) step in and…well, “adjusts” events so that everyone’s lives return to the Plan. The men operate in secret, monitoring the Plan in constantly updating books they carry, and they try to employ to modifications that cause the fewest ripples while getting everything back on track. As one character points out, sometimes a failed cell call is just chance, and sometimes it’s the Bureau at work. (It kind of lends new meaning to “going by the book.”) Matt Damon plays rising politician David Norris, who meets the beautiful Elise (Blunt) seemingly by chance. But he was not “supposed” to meet her. And when he continues to blunder into her, “the Plan” is put at risk, forcing Mr.Richardson (John Slattery; Roger, MAD MEN) and the rest of the behind-the-scenes powers – including the forbidding Mr. Thompson (a menacing Terence Stamp) to take drastic action, with escalating ripples. Anthony Mackie’s Harry is the only member of the hat squad who seems sensitive to Norris’ plight, but can the master Plan be changed?

Right away, you’ll see the problems with this story: the Plan smacks of religious mumbo-jumbo, and while the writer of the plan is referred to only has “the Chairman,” it is explicitly stated that he has other names; indeed, Harry admits that the men of the Bureau are sometimes called angels, but he makes no religious claims of his own. So while the god talk is not explicit, it is omnipresent and cited as a reason why there can be no deviation from the Plan. Of course the movie doesn’t address the fact that if a human can defy “God’s plan” in even the most microscopic way, that means the writer of the plan is not infallible, and therefore by definition cannot be God. So that kind of skews the storyline, and ruined it a bit for me. I kept waiting for the reveal of the Chairman. The movie would have benefited immensely from excising all the superstitious underpinnings and adopting Norris’ more pragmatic stance. It would have been more entertaining to see a practical explanation for the trick doors and special hats, rather than chalking them all up as mere magic.

Damon does a nice job as the loose-cannon politician, but Blunt’s role is so underwritten that viewers never really get a sense of why Norris becomes so enamored with Elise that she is willing to defy the men in hats and risk the threatened punishment. The movie relies totally on Blunt’s compelling personal charisma and physical charms (and that dress) to make the audience believe Elise is worth fighting for. Slattery makes a fine antagonist, and his casting – along with Stamp’s – is doubtless a wink at the idea that “old white men” secretly run the world. And it may prove ironic that the only black face, Mackie, could come out of this movie a star, thanks to his showy role…

If only some clandestine force could have stepped in and tweaked the work of writer/director/producer George Nolfi (who wrote the twisty and intelligent The Bourne Ultimatum as well as, oddly, the craptastic Ocean’s Twelve) before it reached the screen. This could have really been a great movie with just a few…adjustments.

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