Friday, March 4, 2011

'The Adjustment Bureau' Keeps Things On-Plan

David (Matt Damon) and Elise (Emily Blunt), left, running for their lives in "The Adjustment Bureau." Photos by Andrew Schwartz/Universal Studios.

IS “The Adjustment Bureau” about unseen forces that control our every move? Or is it about how true love can withstand and defeat all of the forces on earth and beyond that threaten to subvert it?

The film opens nationwide today.

“The Adjustment Bureau, loosely based on the Philip K. Dick short story, “The Adjustment Team,” stars Matt Damon as David Norris, a Fordham University-educated, Brooklyn-born/bred pol with a superfine future. On the night of a huge political defeat he meets the mysterious Elise (Emily Blunt) in the men’s room of the Waldorf Astoria.

David takes refuge there to practice his concession speech and goes on to do so after satisfying himself that he is alone. Elise, guilty of a common infraction in New York City – party-crashing – is seeking refuge from security guards. She is forced to reveal herself when David hears a sound after he has perfected his speech.

A conversation ensues during which she advise him to keep it real. They kiss, which could be seen coming from a mile away. David’s campaign manager (Michael Kelly) comes to fetch him for his speech. The security guards come to escort Elise out of the building. She dashes, presumably never to be seen again, and David delivers a smashing speech that puts his political future back on track.

Harry (Anthony Mackie), far left, Richardson (John Slattery) and colleagues from the bureau are tasked with keeping plans from going awry in "The Adjustment Bureau."

Some time after David’s speech and Elise’s getaway, four mysterious men in suits and fedoras have convened on a rooftop. They are having a cryptic conversation about adjustments, including spilled coffee on David’s shirt, that must be undertaken to set the universe aright.

Meanwhile, David has taken a job at the firm of his campaign manager friend and today is his first day on the job. Whether owing to fate or Murphy’s Law, David arrives at work too early, throwing the grand plan off track. The bureau springs into action.

David (Matt Damon) campaigns before a neighborhood crowd in "The Adjustment Bureau."

A chase that brought to mind the “Bourne” series – many of the chases in “The Adjustment Bureau” bring to mind the franchise – ensues and David is caught. He is given the facts of life: The world is controlled by unseen forces (a bureau) to keep it from going to hell in a handbasket in double-quick fashion. When developments veer off-plan – David being such a one – adjustments must be made. David learns that he witnessed things that he was not supposed to; further, he was not supposed to run into Elise again, etc., etc., and so forth.

The head fedora-wearing guy in charge (John Slattery) gives David two warnings. One, keep his mouth shut – lest the bureau reset his brain (a high-tech lobotomy). Two, stay away from Elise. The latter won’t be much of a problem since bureau henchmen relieved David of the card bearing Emily’s telephone number and her first name only. NOTE TO YOU FELLOWS: When you meet a woman you really like, get her last name. Also, make sure you have the correct spelling of both of her names. It makes things so much easier when you Google her.

Richardson (John Slattery), far left, discloses to David, seated, (Matt Damon) what gives in "The Adjustment Bureau."

Lovestruck David keeps the secret but spends the next three years riding the same bus at the same time in search of the elusive Elise. One day, though, from his seat on a different bus he spots her on the streets. Again, hell breaks out – another wrench is thrown in the grand plan. The bureau’s efforts to keep these two apart drives much of the action in “The Adjustment Bureau.” Incidentally, the film marks the directing debut of George Nolfi, co-writer of “The Bourne Ultimatum.” He also has a writing credit on another MD vehicle, “Ocean’s Twelve.”

“The Adjustment Bureau” is implausible. Sometimes it is derivative. On occasion, frankly, it is silly. But it is engaging and intriguing. Sure, no one buys the idea that some bureau deeply embedded in the bowels of the main building of the New York Public Library is using an appointment book bearing grids and movable, colored legends to control and monitor our actions. And is the bureau responsible only for the actions of U.S. citizens? Is there another bureau holding things down in Libya, for instance?

One suspends credulity, yet one is sitting either near or on the edge of his/her seat. The endgame is predictable – love will conquer all/the bureau won’t win/free will lives! – but the vast middle passage leading to the conclusion is fraught with questions, doubts, whatifs, supposes and should I’s.

David (Matt Damon) gets support and will get a fedora from Harry (Anthony Mackie) in "The Adjustment Bureau."

Though MD has good support, and there are a few cameos, including one by Hizzoner Michael Bloomberg, “The Adjustment Bureau” is MD’s film. The responsibility of taking a cynical audience on this journey rests largely on his shoulders.

It is easy to forget that MD is possessed of all-American, boyish good looks, as well as a high-wattage smile because he never brings them into his roles. He is wholly unaffected on screen. So deeply does he embed himself in his characters that he becomes invisible. Of course, this is how it should be, but it is often not the case. MD was Jason Bourne. He was literally unrecognizable and unfairly unsung as Le Boeuf – Texas accent and all – in the Oscar-nominated “True Grit.”

It is MD’s David Norris in whom audiences will believe and with whom they will identify. And why not, he’s a humble, likable guy who’s done well and hasn’t forgotten himself. In his line of work where selling out is as common as taxies in midtown Manhattan at noon, he effortlessly maintains his integrity. Not only is he someone with whom you’d have a beer, you’d throw back a few. Consequently, David’s response to this extraordinary revelation is very human and relatable. He knows it’s not true, but has enough humility and common sense to believe that maybe, just maybe.

Elise (Emily Blunt) and Harry (Matt Damon) have a very interesting first meeting in "The Adjustment Bureau."

In a last-ditch effort to make the dancer, Elise, his lady love, David tells her what’s happening. Understandably, she’s angry and thinks he’s crazy. EB as Elise has another important role in the film. Is she the kind of woman for whom a man will risk everything? Yes. She is ethereal, yet reassuringly grounded. The chemistry between the two is electrifying. Indeed, sparks were flying during the first scene in the men’s room when two strangers were having a perfectly normal conversation in absurd circumstances.

So, is “The Adjustment Bureau” about unseen forces that control our every move? Or is it about how true love can withstand and defeat all of the forces on earth and beyond that threaten to subvert it?

While pondering these questions enjoy “The Adjustment Bureau,” its implausibility notwithstanding.

"The Adjustment Bureau" is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image.

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