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Dustin Putman

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The Adjustment Bureau  (2011)
3 Stars
Directed by George Nolfi.
Cast: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, John Slattery, Terence Stamp, Anthony Mackie, Michael Kelly, Anthony Ruivivar.
2011 – 106 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 4, 2011.
Now here's something you don't see every day—a gripping, literate sci-fi film, full of thematic texture, emotional warmth, and existential complexity. In other words, it's the motion picture 2010's overcelebrated, dramatically ineffectual, subjectively barren "Inception" wished it was. Based on the 1954 short story "Adjustment Team" by Philip K. Dick, "The Adjustment Bureau" poses numerous thought-provoking questions and leaves it to the viewer to bring his or her own answers and viewpoints to the story. Knowing too much about the narrative's developments beforehand won't ruin things—it is, after all, adapted from a 55-year-old piece of literature—but it certainly does add to the pleasure of discovery to be in the dark on what is to follow the deliciously deceptive opening half-hour.

David Norris (Matt Damon) is on the verge of becoming the youngest congressman to ever be elected to senator of New York, but when photos of a harmless but damning college reunion prank are made public on voting day, it single-handedly robs him of his would-be victory. Practicing his concession speech in the bathroom of the Waldorf Astoria, he is suddenly reinvigorated by his unexpected chance run-in with charming wedding crasher Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt). They share a strange, undeniable connection before parting ways, and it is this experience that paves the way for the blisteringly honest, widely respected speech he delivers thereafter. Three fortuitous years later, David encounters Elise on a city bus. He doesn't know it yet, but they were never supposed to bump into each other again. Through events that will be tiptoed around, David discovers there is, indeed, a plan at work for every individual's life, and careening off-course could prove near-disastrous to the world's delicate balance. Why is it so wrong for David and Elise to be together, though, when it feels so right?

If you could have a hugely successful professional life, but came to discover along the way that the path you were taking was being orchestrated by outside forces, how would that make you feel? Would anything still truly matter if you knew you weren't in control of your destiny? For that matter, if you had the chance to instead live your life on your own terms, making your own decisions and mistakes, but had the foresight to know that not everything would turn out quite as perfectly, would that be preferable to you? At least then it would be yours and only yours, the good and bad. The accomplished directing debut of screenwriter George Nolfi (2007's "The Bourne Ultimatum"), "The Adjustment Bureau" is tight and resourceful, unhurried but wasting not a second as it carefully sets up its lead character and his personal domain before shattering the foundation of his everyday existence as he knows it. From there, it is paced with a breakneck fluidity that never forgets how crucial its human side—most notably, the powerful love story between David and Elise—is. That, after all, is what it most innately is: a poignant romance between two people who may not be meant for each other in the grander scheme of the universe, but are nonetheless right for each other.

It's fascinating, how many different genres the picture dabbles in, yet how airtight its tone is. Beginning as a politics-laced romantic comedy, the film eventually journeys toward mystery, science-fiction, fantasy, action, and cat-and-mouse paranoid thriller. It's sweet and involving from the start before growing frightening, suspenseful, and exciting. Without any of the usual scare tactics one might see in a horror flick, director George Nolfi proves to be an expert craftsman of building a disquieting, eerie mood over an otherwise normal, mundane portrait of the real world. Just imagine that there were people following you at all times of the day—secretive lifetime stalkers peering around corners, always privy to your every move. "The Adjustment Bureau" gets under the skin with these sorts of "what-ifs" like an extended but very good episode of "The Twilight Zone." Through this revolving door of film types, what it ultimately keeps returning to is the relationship between David and Elise. Without the strength of this, it would be an altogether lesser, emptier experience. In fact, it would miss the entire point of Nolfi's message.

Matt Damon (2010's "Hereafter") and Emily Blunt (2010's "Gulliver's Travels") are optimally cast as earnest politician David Norris and dancer Elise Sellas, two very different people who initially pass like two ships in the night, then can't help but acknowledge how drawn they are to each other when they meet again a few years later. It isn't just that they're physically attracted but almost cosmically connected. Damon is in such command of his role, so relatably human yet never seeming to have to try, that here, yes, his turn is comparable to some of Leonardo DiCaprio's best recent work. Blunt, meanwhile, is both smart and fetching, a young woman with an understanding levity and an all too rare sparkle to her very being. As viewers, we know immediately, right from their first encounter, that David and Elise—and, onscreen, Damon and Blunt—are a great pair. In a trio of pivotal supporting roles, John Slattery (2010's "Iron Man 2"), Anthony Mackie (2009's "Notorious") and Terence Stamp (2008's "Valkyrie") are just right, memorably enigmatic figures who, due to the nature of their parts, are impossible to talk about without venturing into spoiler territory.

A life of staid contentment or one with unpredictable moments of great happiness, love, and occasional heartbreak? This is the central inquiry asked by "The Adjustment Bureau," a film of perceptible notions and ideas. Yes, there are the occasional leaps one must make even within such a far-out tale—the material involving doors as portals is the one area where there might be a few holes in its compact, usually intelligent design—but they prove minimal next to the heart and ambition on display. As for the way the story is concluded, it is blissfully simple and true. Naturally, mainstream-minded audiences prone to giant fireballs and asteroids plowing straight for the planet in their brand of sci-fi are probably bound to walk out underwhelmed. Let us hope that's not the case, because "The Adjustment Bureau" seeks—and more than warrants—our respect.
© 2011 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman