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Friday
Mar042011

The Adjustment Bureau

I’m noticing a trend in Hollywood, and it’s not 3D. While most of each week’s new releases run the gamut of stupidity, every so often there’s a movie that offers up intelligent thought on complicated themes and issues. The trend, however, is that those smart movies go off the deep end by their conclusion and lose what made them so good. January’s The Rite is only one exemplification of that trend, but, thankfully, Matt Damon’s new thriller, The Adjustment Bureau is here to break it.

Damon plays David Norris, who is vying to become the next Senator of New York. Although young, he is popular among his constituents and it looks like he is going to win the race, but after a video of him pranking an old college buddy gets leaked to the public, his numbers go down and he ends up losing. (Such a harmless prank seems like small potatoes when compared to the usual New York politician scandal.) What Norris doesn’t know, however, is that he was predetermined to lose by a mysterious bureau that operates under the public eye and causes things to happen, which adjust the course of time. Harry, played by Anthony Mackie, is assigned to Norris and has set him up for big things in the future, but when he accidentally neglects his duties, Norris comes into contact with Elise, played by Emily Blunt, whom he met once years ago, fell in love with and was never supposed to see again. This oversight also allows Norris to see behind the curtain and learn of the bureau. Rather than dispose of him, he is told to keep their existence a secret and also to stay away from Elise, but his feelings are too strong and he pursues her anyway.

Matt Damon thrillers always have a sense of urgency to them and they’re grounded so steep in drama that lighthearted tones usually pass by the wayside. That isn’t the case with The Adjustment Bureau. While by no means a comedy, the film has a little fun with its subject matter and gives viewers a chance to smile and enjoy themselves. From the opening few minutes, where everybody from Wolf Blitzer to Jon Stewart joins in on the fun, to the zingy one-liners, there’s some real charm here and it instantly pulls you in its grasp.

Though pleasant, that beginning is also deceiving because it sets itself up for a goofy romp, but when it gets into the meat of the story, it brings forth a surprising amount of intelligence. Early allusions to who the bureau actually is open up questions that form the intrigue (and although it’s fairly obvious what they’re hinting at, it could be considered spoilers, so consider yourself warned). The bureau, as answered by Harry early in the film, has been called many things, including angels. They are the overseers who look out for us, but in a different way than most people who believe in angels think. They are not of this world and they operate under “the chairman,” or as earthbound humans call him, God. In this way, the film ponders over the idea of free will. It wonders what would happen if there were indeed a heavenly being watching over us, but didn’t trust us enough to make our own decisions. As one bureau member tells Norris, we are bad at living. We cause too much destruction. It is told that the chairman gave us multiple chances to run our own lives, but we repeatedly squandered the opportunity, so he decided to control us. Another interesting thought is raised here. What if God changed his mind? A discussion like that is probably better left to theologians, but there’s no denying that the argument would ruffle feathers among those who believe in a steadfast, omnipotent God that, due to knowing everything, would never need to change his mind. But it is precisely that questioning of such complicated issues that makes the movie so interesting.

It doesn’t necessarily answer what it questions, but it doesn't have to because it is questioning religion and religion itself is inherently mysterious. In its story construction, however, The Adjustment Bureau comes off as much too vague. When Norris is told he can’t see Elise again, he asks why it matters. They respond with, “because it matters,” which isn’t exactly the most sufficient narrative explanation. With no detailed reason to keep them apart, and the bulk of the movie consisting of him trying to get to her, the question of why keeps lingering in the back of the brain.

It’s not the tightest thriller in that regard, but its abidance by its own set rules shows the care put into its production. Its mythology set by the opening scenes is never disregarded in favor of more action. Instead, it weaves the action around the mythology, which keeps it at a certain level of style and finesse. At its core, however, amidst the sci-fi mystery thrills, The Adjustment Bureau is a romance. Its message that nothing, even divine intervention, can stop two people in love could have come off as sickly sweet, but meaningful performances from Damon and Blunt make it work. It’s the best wide release movie of the year so far and, though it probably won’t reach my end of the year list, you owe it to yourself to check it out. And don’t forget your thinking cap.

The Adjustment Bureau receives 4/5

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