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Adjustment Bureau, The (Blu-ray Review)

17 Jun, 2011 By: John Latchem

Street 6/21/11
Box Office $62.5 million
$29.98 DVD, $39.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG-13’ for brief language, some sexuality and a violent image.
Stars Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly, Terence Stamp.

Have you ever pondered the direction your life may have taken had certain events occurred one way instead of another? Or how meeting that perfect someone wouldn’t have happened had the circumstances been slightly different?

First-time director George Nolfi’s charming The Adjustment Bureau takes a deeper look at how much influence seemingly insignificant moments can have on our future, using a love story with a hard sci-fi hook to present a philosophy seminar on the nature of fate versus free will.

Nolfi’s script focuses on a U.S. Senate candidate named David Norris (Matt Damon), whose election hopes are derailed by an ill-timed photo in a local newspaper. (It’s doubtful such a picture would have had much sway in a New York election, but the movie tries its best to sell it.) As he prepares his concession, he meets a ballet dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt), and is instantly taken with her, inspiring his speech to turn into a Howard Beale moment in which he decries the phony nature of politics and how his entire public persona is manufactured by consultants and focus groups for maximum resonance with the voters.

Months later, Norris takes a job at a venture capital firm, and encounters Elise again on a bus to work. It’s great luck, he thinks, until he gets to work and finds everyone frozen by strange men in fedoras. They tell him they are operatives for a higher power meant to ensure implementation of a grand plan. You see, the universe operates more or less according to random chance, so the adjustors often have create the circumstances of fate by nudging events to achieve the desired outcome. David is told he is not meant to be with Elise, and if he reveals their existence they’ll wipe his brain. These men personify the idea that fate conspires to bring people together or keep them apart.

Another three years pass, and David has moved on with his life, until he encounters Elise again and takes it upon himself to decide his own destiny, even as the adjustment bureau intervenes again, setting up a literal struggle between fate and free will. With the help of a sympathetic adjustor (Anthony Mackie) David starts using the Bureau’s rules against them, leading to a spectacular chase through New York using special doorways that can transport people from one end of the city to another instantly. At this point, the film becomes a thriller in which David finds himself literally running away from his own destiny.

The Adjustment Bureau is the latest in a proud list of adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s work, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly and Next. In this case, the fantastical concept comes from the Dick short story Adjustment Team, and Nolfi runs with it with the kind of fervor usually only seen on shows such as “Doctor Who” or “The Twilight Zone.” In fact, the plot reminded me of an episode of the 1980s “Twilight Zone” called “A Matter of Minutes,” in which a couple discovers that each second of time is built by a special construction crew. However, The Adjustment Bureau manages to flesh out its concept with a little more authenticity, if such a term is appropriate for a film such as this.

It becomes clear that when "the plan" unravels it's because the people carrying it out have the same emotional failings (or strengths, depending on your point of view) as those they’re supposed to be overseeing. One of the film’s more amusing subplots deals with the frustrations some of the adjustors feel about their job, as if they aren’t much different from a store clerk dealing with an unruly customer. There’s a certain satisfaction in seeing John Slattery whining about his bad luck in having to deal with David’s penchant for causing him trouble.

On the other end of this spectrum is a specialist played with understated verve by the great Terence Stamp. He doesn’t need to resort to fancy gimmicks to get people to do what he wants. Telling them the devastating, unfettered truth is usually enough to do the trick.

Beyond its broader metaphysical questions, the film also explores the nature of love and the balance between servicing your own personal happiness and the greater good. After all, certain people are chosen for greatness, and David is told he could be president if he cuts Elise out of his life. The love story focus means the film is absolutely reliant on the charisma of Damon and Blunt, who luckily have enough chemistry to let the audience fill in the blanks of their relationship without bogging the film down in trite romanticism (such as The Time Traveler’s Wife, for instance).

The inherent paradox of the set-up is to make Damon a politician who’s impossibly honest and sincere, but the fact that he’s a politician helps explain his arrogance and confidence in his quest. The love story focus means the film is absolutely reliant on the charisma of Damon and Blunt, who luckily have enough chemistry to let the audience fill in the blanks of their relationship without bogging the film down in trite romanticism (like The Time Traveler’s Wife, for instance).

For those who can get past the metaphysical mind warp, The Adjustment Bureau is quite an engaging adventure. Nolfi deftly blends a variety of genres to keep the film from spinning off its axis, but even so, there are a lot of weighty themes for viewers to grasp, resulting in a film that probably will end up being more admired than loved.

The highlight of the extras is the excellent solo commentary from Nolfi, who covers every possible topic, such as script development, casting, the nuances of the performances, filming the action sequences, planting subtle clues to enhance audience perception, and using different camera moves to denote control or chaos.

The disc also contains a few inconsequential deleted scenes and a number of interesting behind-the-scenes featurettes that detail such things as Blunt’s dance training and building a set behind the outfield wall at Yankee Stadium to pull off a seamless doorway jump.

The Blu-ray includes an exclusive “Labyrinth of Doors” map that lets you zoom around the city and watch video clips that relate to the various locations.

About the Author: John Latchem

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