Benevolent Force

In Bourne Ultimatum screenwriter George Nolfi’s directorial debut (an extremely loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1954 short story “Adjustment Team”), Matt Damon plays David Norris, a Brooklyn-born, bar-fight-prone congressman rocketing to the front of a Senate race apparently on the strength of his charisma and the idealism of his young supporters: “Come November, I want [the naysayers] to know it was young people like you who kicked their asses!” He is Obama made movie-perfect—meaning he's been given just a touch of volatile testosterone.

The media love him, but somehow, David falls far behind on election night. Humbled by defeat, he cute-meets enigmatic dancer Elise (Emily Blunt), who inspires him to give an off-the-cuff, conversation-changing and ultimately reputation-restoring concession speech about the “bullshit” that goes into the creation of a candidate. But after a deeply romantic, impulsive kiss, Elise disappears. Later, the would-be couple meet again by chance. This time, dude actually gets digits—only to be soon accosted by a number of mysterious men in hats (including Anthony Mackie and John Slattery), who explain that a continued courtship “isn’t part of the plan.” These men burn the card with Elise’s number and warn David they’ll be watching him at all times to make sure he stays away from her. Should he tell anyone what he has just been told, Slattery intones, almost mock-ominously, “We’ll erase your brain.”

The hatted men, it turns out, are part of a highly bureaucratic squad of divine interveners, working on Earth to make sure humans don’t use their pesky free will to deviate from the blueprint for humanity designed by “the Chairman.” This unseen, omnipotent presence’s universe-structuring conspiracy—laid out in files filling a secret library accessible though doors and passageways hidden throughout Manhattan and made portable via plan books that look like Moleskines with GPS—is basically benevolent. The adjustors, without spoiling too much, are halting David and Elise’s affair only for the good of humanity—that is, if you believe it’ll be good for humanity to invest in things such as solar energy and, um, modern dance while the results of future elections are fixed to favor our hero.

The Adjustment Bureau, in other words, is a conspiracy movie in which the conspiracy—fairly complicated in terms of mechanics if not meaning, relayed via nearly nonstop expository dialogue and then essentially discarded very late in the game—poses a somewhat less-than-urgent threat. Beyond David’s “this is bullshit” concession speech, writer/director Nolfi never shows much interest in probing paranoia or in revealing the construction of reality in any sort of practical way. Where Dick’s story ends ironically, with David’s counterpart embracing his lack of free will after the adjustors step in with a domestic assist, Nolfi has drastically altered the trappings of the Cold War–era parable, rejiggering its themes to better suit an unremarkable “love conquers all” schema.

Which isn't to say there's no pleasure to be had here. Nolfi’s predilection for old-school cinematic technique over newfangled excess is refreshing and sometimes ingenious: The most effective special effects are simple hard edits, lending extra verisimilitude to the graphic-novel-reminiscent action. And Damon and Blunt conjure a convincing chemistry, which helps alleviate the drone of countless scenes of people explaining shit.

The basic competency of director and stars shouldn't be enough to earn a film with every available resource at its disposal a pass, but considering the current state of the midrange, middlebrow Hollywood film, it sort of is. In his recent GQ story on Hollywood’s drift toward adolescent males, Mark Harris describes a now-mythical-sounding “tier of movies that used to reside in quality somewhere below, say, There Will Be Blood but well north of Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married Too? . . . [T]he kind of film about which you should be able to say, ‘That was nothing special, but it was okay.’” Until its ludicrous ripoff ending (which recalls the penultimate sequence of Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky, right down to the color palette and Manhattan rooftop setting), The Adjustment Bureau is exactly that: an okay adult entertainment. It would be truly nothing special if it weren’t also an endangered species.

This review did not appear in print.

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