The title of writer/director George Nolfi’s SCI-FI action romance The Adjustment Bureau is one of the least enticing on the 2011 calendar. Those three uninspiring words do make sense in a story context, given they sound like a description of a government department and the film is more or less about one – though whether the surreptitious actions of a group of humanity “organisers” it imagines are representatives of a human, alien or divine governing body is left for the viewer to ponder. Still, it’s hardly a title people are going to enunciate in giddy breaths as they gather around the proverbial water cooler and gab about what they got up to on the weekend.
Loosely based on a Philip K. Dick short story, Matt Damon plays David Norris, an ambitious young politician whose dreams of becoming a senator are put on hold after an election night drubbing. Rehearsing his concession speech in the men’s room, David bumps into a colourful free loving spirit by the name of Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) and within moments they’re waxing romantic and getting it on on the bathroom counter. But Elise isn’t any toilet dwelling floozy, at least not for David: it takes him about a minute and a half to deduce the she is unequivocally The One and he spends the rest of the story in a hopelessly smitten bubble of love, longing for her presence.
Trouble is, a humourless group of super-human bureaucrats in suits and homburgs are working on instructions that their romance is strictly forbidden. They carry books that look like a cross between diaries and portable GPS systems and grouse about how David and Elise’s romance does not fit into “the plan,” a precisely designed vision of the future orchestrated for humanity’s benefit by a figure known only as “the Chairman.”
The suits use extraordinary powers such as telekinesis and mind manipulation to keep humanity progressing in accordance with the Chairman’s vision. Orders from high are crystal clear: David and Elise must not be together, for reasons we discover in time. The syrupy message of the film is obvious: never give up on love, fight for what you believe in, pursue What Is Right no matter the odds or reprecussions, a yada yada.
For the film’s central SCI-FI component to resonate the suit-clad super-powered bureaucrats needed to have gravitas but instead they float on and off the fame like sanctimonious pop culture light weights, flat angel-like stereotypes more comic book than cinema, more Stan Lee than Wim Wenders. You can never take them seriously but Nolfi’s approach is deadpan.
At the one point the story establishes an interesting dilemma – that the cost of true love means forfeiting your vocational dreams – but ditches it in favour of an open-ended and predictable have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too trajectory. And while Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are fine as the two “off the plan” lovebirds, it’s hard to believe that such a fleeting initial encounter could spark feelings this strong, on which the thrust of the story rests.
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One scene in which Norris embarks on a deranged feat of strength / race against the clock adventure, wearing a special hat that enables him to use standard doors as magical portals to leap between different areas of the city, should have been a corker but Nolfi’s direction is just as humourless as the personalities of his by-the-book bureaucrats, so it’s not much fun. There are moments when you have to admire the movie’s audaciously nonsensical approach to romance, but that scene emphasises The Adjustment Bureau’s central problem: it’s too weird and kooky to take seriously and too stiff-limbed and straight-faced to really enjoy.
The Adjustment Bureau’s Australian theatrical release date: March 3, 2010.