review for The Adjustment Bureau on AllMovie

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
by Jason Buchanan review

In his feature directorial debut, The Adjustment Bureau, screenwriter George Nolfi (Ocean's Twelve, The Bourne Ultimatum) may well have discovered the formula for the perfect date movie. By striking a particularly skillful balance between heart-fluttering romance and heady sci-fi thrills, this mind-bending tale of forbidden love in a world devoid of true freedom offers something genuinely engaging for men and women alike, and blankets it all with a sugary sprinkle of self-conscious humor that perfectly offsets the heavier themes of fate versus free will.

David Norris (Matt Damon) is a rising New York congressmen whose everyman charisma has earned him a loyal following among locals. One night, after suffering a crushing political defeat, David is rehearsing his concession speech in a hotel bathroom when out of a stall wanders Elise (Emily Blunt), who was hiding out from security guards after crashing a wedding. The chemistry between David and Elise is instant and electric. But as fast as she appeared, Elise vanishes, leaving David to wonder if he will ever see her again. A few days later, as if by chance, David is boarding a bus for work when he spots Elise in a window seat. Though he manages to get her number this time, David is terrified when he arrives at his new job and discovers a mysterious group of men performing an unusual procedure on his paralyzed co-workers. Informed by the imposing and sharp-dressed Richardson (John Slattery) that he has just seen behind a curtain that few will ever know even exists, David agrees never to tell anyone of their encounter or talk to Elise again lest his entire memory be completely erased. Three years later, though, when David spots Elise from the window of a city bus as she walks down the street, he can't resist the urge to rekindle their romance. Unfortunately for the two young lovers, however, the mysterious agents at the Adjustment Bureau are determined to keep them apart at all costs in order to ensure there is no deviation from the master plan drawn up by "The Chairman" for the future of all humankind.

Starting out firmly rooted in reality, then gradually introducing the more fantastical elements as the plot picks up the pace, The Adjustment Bureau draws us in with the chemistry of its two capable leads, then lets us root for them as otherworldly forces endeavor with all of their might to drive them apart. The more that charm gives way to menace, the more Nolfi's screenplay begins utilizing a tantalizing series of vague clues to let us know whom the Adjustment Bureau serves, and how they operate. From the mysterious books carried by the agents to the stylish hats that adorn their crowns, Nolfi continually drops subtle hints to prime our imagination as the stakes grow increasingly higher. The key scene early in the film that finds David Norris mistakenly catching a glimpse of the Adjustment Bureau hard at work offers a highly effective blend of humor and creepiness, culminating in a confrontation that reveals just enough about the organization's mysterious motivations to set the main plot into motion. Once that happens, the action shifts into high gear and only pauses to let us know precisely what's at risk should Norris resist his orders from a higher power. Later, when the Bureau decides to bring in their secret weapon, all bets are off.

At a point in both of their careers when Damon and Blunt appear to be tempting overexposure, The Adjustment Bureau offers compelling proof that their successes are well deserved. This becomes particularly evident during one pivotal scene in which a member of the Adjustment Bureau observes that Harry and Elise were meant to be together in "an earlier version of 'The Plan.'" Thanks to strong performances by both, this concept comes through powerfully from the moment they first meet -- well before that line is even spoken. Likewise, the deep-rooted friendship between David and Charlie (Michael Kelly), his main campaign aide, also comes off as endearingly authentic, while John Slattery's imposing presence adds a palpable sense of urgency to the whole affair, and Anthony Mackie plays up the more sensitive side of The Chairman's hat squad in a way that lets us know they do indeed have a conscience. Veteran actor Terence Stamp displays an intense sense of gravity as Thompson, the Bureau member who's called in when all else fails, and an all-star cast of political and pop-culture cameos convincingly places the action against a contemporary backdrop.

Though it's likely that some detractors may cite the screenplay's staunch refusal to explicitly spell out the larger-scale consequences should Harry and Elise remain together as an insurmountable oversight, a revealing speech by Thompson concerning The Chairman's approach to free will hints that the couple's affair could in fact alter the course of human history, effectively launching the film's romance factor into the stratosphere while giving us just enough detail to draw our own conclusions. For those who don't mind using their imaginations to connect the dots, The Adjustment Bureau offers a fast-paced sci-fi thrill ride directly into the tunnel of love.