In Need of an ‘Adjustment’

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Unless you regularly visit Web sites like Collider, you probably didn’t know that “The Adjustment Bureau” was at one point scheduled for a September 2010 release, only to be pushed back to March of this year. Doesn’t sound like such a big deal, right? Well, you’d be surprised.

You see, what’s worrisome about a release date shuffle to a later period than originally intended is that it often indicates that a film needs either reshoots or more time in post-production (or both) after a not-so-hot reception from the studio or test audience. While there may be some marked improvement by the time the film is released, the film as a whole usually doesn’t turn out to be exactly stellar.

Such is the case for “The Adjustment Bureau,” an adaptation of famed science fiction novelist Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Adjustment Team.” This is particularly tragic because despite its fascinating premise and potential, the film only adequately delivers.

David Norris (Matt Damon) is an ambitious and charismatic politician running for the United States Senate. Despite his early lead in the race, a tabloid event from his bad boy past is revealed, and he subsequently loses to his opponent.

While rehearsing a concession speech in the men’s restroom, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt), who was incidentally hiding there after crashing a wedding. Attracted to each other, their witty chatter concludes with a passionate kiss. She dashes out (without telling him her name), and he soon wins the voters over with the honesty he displays during his speech.

Some time passes, and they unexpectedly cross paths once more in a transit bus. Their attraction is still alive and instantaneous, and after getting her name and number, David heads to work in high spirits.

Upon entering the office, he accidentally interrupts an eerie operation run by men wearing fedoras and suits. He is confronted by Mitchell and Richardson (Anthony Mackie and John Slattery respectively), who inform him that they are part of the Adjustment Bureau, a group that makes sure that certain people (in this case, David) follow a predestined path, a plan. After warning him not to tell anyone of their existence via threats of lobotomy, they also tell him never to meet Elise again.

Not one to be cockblocked, David rides the same bus every day for three years to see Elise again (as the bureau burned the contact information she gave him), and lo and behold, he does! With this latest encounter, he ignites a conflict between himself and the Bureau, who are determined to keep the lovers apart and make sure that David’s life goes according to plan.

What makes “The Adjustment Bureau” so intriguing is that it is not the science fiction thriller that recent previews have been showing it to be. Yes, there is science fiction involved, and there are several thrilling moments. But surprisingly, at its core is a love story. To be frank, it is rather difficult to try and place the film within a particular genre, though calling the film a romance with sci-fi elements isn’t quite a stretch.

Alas, this brings to light one of the film’s biggest problems: an inconsistent tone. There are times when the film isn’t sure what it wants to be, yet it knows that romance and science fiction are involved and must be developed. What results is a narrative that seesaws back and forth between romance and science fiction as it progresses, and this constant fluctuation is almost painfully obvious. You know that whenever David is with Elise, the film is developing its love story, and right when he is clashes with the Bureau, it shifts into a sci-fi picture.

With a film like this, you’ll certainly be asking many questions, especially about the Bureau itself. Are they human? They are certainly capable of expressing emotion, as often seen through David’s interactions with Mitchell and Richardson. How are they not able to foresee chance when they appear to predict almost everything else? Unfortunately, not all the questions you’ll have will be answered, and whatever questions that are answered aren’t done so in a manner that will leave you satisfied.

Speaking of the Bureau, while we do find out some information about them, it just isn’t enough to quench our interest in them. They are arguably the most compelling element in the film, yet only the bare minimum amount of time is spent exploring the mysterious organization. If anything, this is a wasted opportunity, especially considering the film’s relatively short running time of 99 minutes.

While the sci-fi aspect of the film falls short, the romance is a flying success, and it owes much credit to the strong, believable chemistry between Damon and Blunt — the way they play off each other is humorous and natural — as well as the way the film handles the love story.

The conflict between free will and predestination is not uncommon in Dick’s stories, as it is also seen in “The Minority Report,” another short story of his which was adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg in 2002. Here, the theme is placed in the context of a love story, and it works extremely well emotionally — would you risk everything for romantic joy?

Unfortunately, the film devolves in the final 15 minutes, which culminates in a clunky and dunderheaded voiceover akin to the one heard in the original theatrical version of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” another adaptation of a Dick novel.

Screenwriter George Nolfi makes his directorial debut here, and he handles the material well overall. Nolfi manages to make the film both an emotional and visual treat (kudos to veteran cinematographer John Toll’s sleek images of New York), though he definitely should have spent more time with the film’s story.

Overall, the film’s inconsistency in tone and missed opportunities are just barely redeemed by the stars’ chemistry and the emotional payoff of its love story. “The Adjustment Bureau” could have been a much better film had it been more bold and daring.

Rating: 3/5 Stars