Matt Damon and Emily Blunt fight for love in theological romance The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
Can we escape destiny, re-write fate and defy predestination? It's the question at the heart of Philip K. Dick's 1954 short story Adjustment Team and one David Norris (Matt Damon) has to face in this romantic adaptation, the directorial debut of screenwriter George Nolfi (The Bourne Ultimatum, Paul Greengrass, 2007). David is a politician running for senate and on the eve of a life-changing speech he meets Elise (Emily Blunt). She's a ballerina, and their chance encounter happens in the mens room. They instantly click and flirt with each other, and their brief encounter ends with a passionately impromptu kiss. This event happened in accordance to a plan, as she provided the motivation for a controversial speech which redeems Norris' career after tabloids expose lewd behavior from his college past. They were never meant to meet again but when a member of the bureau, Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie), falls asleep on the job, the hopeful couple pick up where they left off. These are brief, fleeting moments - but they mean everything to David and Elise, who realize immediately that they may have found something special in each other. But then the bureau intervenes...
Fedora wearing agents who lurk on rooftops in shadows, the bureau clearly have their feet dipped in the cold waters of noir as much as they do sci-fi, and an early establishing shot also recalls Wim Wenders' Wings Of Desire (1987) - in fact, there are several scenes that recall that beautiful film. It's an apt time to bring it up too, because I need to flag a warning to anyone who's going into this expecting a full-blown sci-fi thriller; something paranoid in the vein of A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, 2006). This is not that movie. Although there are moments of claustrophobic fear and an excitingly original chase sequence at the end of the film, this is actually a quiet character study and a gentle etching of romance, and one that is quite relatable. Much like the first kiss they share David and Elise's relationship is built on nuances established in fleeting moments; it is impromptu and impulsive, and some will have a hard time buying into the sincerity and power of their feelings within the timeframe that the film establishes. But the nature of cinema means that events have to be compressed and The Adjustment Bureau actually covers a time span of half a decade. It must be really hard spending three years apart from the woman of your dreams, the woman you love and suspect you could spend the rest of your life with, while not even knowing her last name. In fact, the pain must be unbearable.
Nolfi's direction is efficient if unremarkable; but the visual aesthetic is suitably gloomy and he makes great use of space. Films about romance - no matter how doomed - normally take place in Summer so that the vibrant aesthetic may provide a parallel to the burgeoning emotions. But The Adjustment Bureau is a dark picture, with buildings of brown and grey towering over dank streets, the inky sky hardly ever obscured by cloud but delivering a foreboding menace. The DoP is John Toll who also shot Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998). This isn't his best work but it's hard to think of another cinematographer who could have done this much with what is, frankly, quite visually restricting material. The shots are all well composed and the final chase, with its complex location hopping which could have been a complete mess, is clearcut and expansive - tension is evoked from the enclosing enemy forces rather than quick-cut editing and frenetic handheld camerawork. In fact the film generally exists in shot-reverse-shots and tracking shots, which gives it something of an unshowy, classical feel.
The screenplay has holes big enough to drive a convoy through and some character logic could be fairly questioned but Damon and Blunt bring warmth and humanity to the piece, and it's their chemistry that keeps you engaged over the brief and briskly paced story (it's only 105 minuets). The relationship is genuinely believable, and it's clear that this is where the most effort has been put into the screenplay. The central theological argument is also well developed, however, and there are interesting questions that exist in the film. In one scene Thompson (a scenery chewing Terence Stamp) recounts the mistakes humanity made when given the option of free will - The Dark Ages and the Holocaust among them. It's a thought provoking piece of work, but not a deeply philosophical one - this isn't like the monologue-strewn ponderings of a Linklater flick. The themes are hung on human relationships, and work better for that fact. At first I feared that the theology and romance might eventually derail each other - due to their individual elements they seemingly can't co-exist. The ending has been the source of much derision, but I think it was always impossible to make something that would satisfy everyone.
David may question and try to understand but his priority is always Elise. She is his destiny, no matter what they say, and Blunt makes her charismatic and human enough that we understand his want to be with her. This means that their romance not only smooths over any plot holes but also makes the ending believable. Yes, it does stray into hackneyed deus ex machina, which I don't think Dick would ever have allowed - but then his story didn't co-exist with a forbidden romance spread over five years of pain and longing. That longing is painted onto our protagonists faces come the denouement and now that I come away from the film and let it settle in that seems strangely real to me. If I were David I would not stand around and debate theology with men in hats. I would fight for Elise with everything I had, and do anything to hold onto her. Why? Because as David says earlier in the film: "All I have are the choices I make. And I choose her." It may be a little sappy to some, but to me that's love. And that's what The Adjustment Bureau - badly marketed as a sci-fi thriller - is all about. It's highly suspicious that a Godlike figure would concede to such Hollywood cliché and re-write the world in accordance to an impromptu romance, but in terms of narrative and audience investment the ending makes sense, and once I'd escaped the feeling of conformity I felt quite comforted by the outcome.