We saw The Adjustment Bureau last weekend – the night it opened in London, in fact – and I thought it was great. This is not solely because it gives some screen time to FOTF (Friend of the Factory) Joel de la Fuente, who is the older brother of a college friend, and a worthy and often-triumphant fantasy baseball rival of mine in his own right. In the film he looks good in his suit and I think he stops time only when it’s appropriate.
No, I thought it was great for the same reason as usual – I really liked several of the characters, and enjoyed spending a couple hours watching them navigate their world and each other. Whether that world was internally logically consistent, or made me question my own understanding of reality, wasn’t something I spent too much time on.
I assume you know the basics of the plot, but if not: there’s a group called The Adjustment Bureau (who are sort of like angels, but dressed in sharp 50s suits and hats) and they sometimes tweak the way things are going on Earth to make sure things are “going according to the plan” (which was written by someone sort of like God). It’s all very Deus ex Machina, or if you like, Hari Seldon. The idea comes from a Philip K. Dick story, but most of the movie came from the screenwriter’s head – the original story has no romance, and a different ending which makes humanity look more pathetic – sort of like The Natural the book vs. The Natural the movie.
But the quality of the science fiction isn’t really the point. At heart this is a fun romantic caper, not a meditation on What Is Really Real, Really along the lines of The Matrix or The Inception. This is more along the lines of What if Something Like This Was True About How The Universe Worked, and Then Two Likable People Living In That Reality Developed Feelings For Each Other, While Racing Against The Clock. Think of Hancock, Independence Day, Men In Black…well, almost any Will Smith sci-fi movie, really, save the Legend one.
The leads here are excellent. Matt Damon is at his most likeable: funny, self-effacing, observant and other-directed – think his first date with Minnie Driver in Good Will Hunting, when he’s cracking her up by sending up her notions of him, but also asking the teasing question that lets him start to understand what makes her tick. It’s fun to watch him as a Congressman who follows a girl he has a crush on into a techno club, and gives in to the fact that for once he’s not in control. For her part, Emily Blunt wins Damon over not by being an eyelash-flapping ingénue, but by being whip-smart, with a penetrating gaze, passionate in and excellent at what she does, and very funny. Anthony Mackie, as
Damon’s case officer/guardian angel, uses stillness and just the right amount of jaw-clenching-while-exhaling to convey his struggles and his sometimes-thwarted desire to change things, even though changing things is what he does for a living (he just doesn’t get to decide how).
Far more convincing than the angels-stopping-time thing, and far more fun to watch, is the love-at-first-sight thing between Damon and Blunt: the tiny double-takes, the slight widening of the eyes as they both get into a conversation and realise they are playing Championship tennis having only just met and not even having introduced themselves. You see and believe the slight giddiness they both feel and are unashamed to be feeling, and the willingness to go with it together, rather than each dialing back into themselves, playing it cool and then going off alone somewhere to assess whether that just really happened. For me, it was the willingness of both Blunt’s and Damon’s characters to just let the train careen down the track which made them both so appealing, so quickly. So, if we warm to their “to hell with it, I guess I believe in magic now” attitude when it comes to love at first sight, it’s a bit churlish to take them down a peg for their credulity when Men In Hats show up and say they can change the future.
That said, many reviewers have quibbled with how quickly Damon’s character believes the new rules of reality being dictated by the Men In Hats – he asks a couple reasonable questions, decides that he’s grasped the core concepts, and makes a run for it. I confess being a bit impatient with the film myself at that moment. But, really, would I have rather watched him spend twenty torturous minutes coming to terms with it? I wouldn’t know from personal experience, of course, but I gather in Twilight when the tall thin pouting girl was just coming around to figure out that Robert Pattinson was a vampire, it took for-freaking ever. Everyone in the theater had already decided to suspend disbelief on that issue, just by showing up to the movie – why does she need to be the last person in the theatre to figure it out? You just want them to get on board quickly, so we can get back to the action.
I’m pretty sure that was the conscious choice of the director, George Nolfi – in fact I imagine Nolfi shot a few scenes of Damon chewing the scenery saying “My whole life – everyone’s life – it’s a LIE”, and then wisely decided to leave them on the cutting room floor and stick to the action. This “just go with it” attitude does keep the scifi from being watertight, and there are indeed a few things that when you get home you’ll think “but why didn’t he just” – or, “if this is supposed to be impossible, then how do you explain” – but Nolfi just doesn’t seem to have been going for something that people will eventually write PhDs about. For what it’s worth, there is a bit of a Big Life Question in the last quarter of the film, a choice Damon is asked to make, which might spark some “I wonder how I would handle that choice if it was given to me” musing for some viewers. This is not the kind of question I remember asking myself at any point during Bourne, or Blade Runner for that matter. That little potential hook back to your own life may make it, I suppose by definition, more thought-provoking than some sci-fi action movies. Those thoughts aren’t going to make you question your understanding of reality though.
Elsewhere in the film, there are lots of little deft touches – Damon and Jon Stewart joking on the Daily Show, the care taken in setting up the backdrops for the political speeches, the different vibe of upstate New York (where Damon has to go to campaign), the modern dancing of Blunt (and/or her double, but a lot of it looked like it was really her). They are all over the City in the movie, running in and out of doors, and as an expat New Yorker it was nice to see so many real and specific bits of the city – Bank St, DUMBO, 11th Ave in the 20s, Pier 17, Madison Square Park – rather than to just have the whole movie be happening inside while they recited addresses of where they supposedly were.
In short, if you’re looking for something to spend a couple hours on this weekend, you could do a lot worse. Just expect to laugh and swoon a bit more than you expect to think, and everything will go according to plan.
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Special Bonus Appendix Review for Londoners: We saw this at the Everyman Cinema on Baker Street. Bit of a plush experience, tickets were £13 each – but I would definitely try to go there again next time a movie we want to see is on there.
It felt like a private screening room – we realized afterwards that nobody had even taken our ticket (I had bought online), which I guess is easier to do when the place sells out. The doorman just asked “Are you here for The Adjustment Bureau?” and waved us in. The film showtime was 8:40, and we were arriving just about then, but he went on to say “The actual film doesn’t start until about 9pm, so you have plenty of time.” There is a small but very nicely-kitted out bar – red fabric seats, low wood tables, fashionable fixtures emitting low lighting – which was filled with people lounging before going in to the film.
For food on offer they had things like olives and little tomatoes stuffed with mozzarella – it felt more like an antipasti bar than someplace you would have contemplated buying popcorn or Twizzlers. There were plenty of wines and cocktails available, and of course you can take your drinks into the theatre, this is England! The theatre seats were new, plush and comfortable with real springs in the seats rather than foam like an airline seat. (Not that you could feel the individual springs, but you could tell.) Hated to get up at the end, and will be happy to return.
Beforehand, we’d had dinner at Canteen, just across Baker Street. Canteen is our go-to place for reliable, tasty British comfort food, always served quickly and by people who seem to be very good waiters but also real people, albeit perhaps more attentive, thoughtful and friendly than your average real person. They must hire and manage well, in addition to cooking deliciously and at a good price.
You wouldn’t go there to be surprised by the chef’s dazzling combinations of heretofore unintermingled ingredients, but if you wake up and just want an Eggs Benedict or a Full English while you read the papers, or if you have an hour for dinner and are happy with a roast chicken or a steak and stilton pie, served with a pint of ale or a decent red, in warm lighting by pleasant people, this is a good place for it.
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