x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The Adjustment Bureau

It's heartening to see Hollywood going clever again in The Adjustment Bureau, a corporate satire that tackles questions of fate and free will.

Matt Damon, left, and Anthony Mackie in The Adjustment Bureau.
Matt Damon, left, and Anthony Mackie in The Adjustment Bureau.

The Adjustment Bureau

Director: George Nolfi

Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie

Like Inception without the eye-gouging special effects, or like The Matrix without the balletic ultraviolence, The Adjustment Bureau is a quietly provocative sci-fi film that's all narrative brain and, thankfully, very little blockbuster brawn. And don't let the romantic pitch-line fool you - this story of two star-crossed lovers battling the forces of immutable fate in modern-day Manhattan is mere window dressing for a film that's as much about the head as it is the heart.

Here, in a loose and liberal adaptation of a short story from Philip K Dick (the same source for Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report), the debut director and screenwriter George Nolfi (The Bourne Ultimatum) essays the busy life of David Norris (Damon), a New York senator with presidential ambitions. When he has a chance encounter with a charismatic dancer called Elise (Blunt) – the pair boast effortless chemistry – he is distracted from his life's mission and will seemingly do anything, and alter his own destiny, just to be with her. Enter the eponymous bureau, an army of previously invisible white-collar henchmen who wear fedoras and natty suits, and carry leather-bound log books that pre-ordain the course of all human life, which they enforce at every turn.

The bureau, in the shape of agents Mitchell (Mackie) and Richardson (Mad Men's John Slattery), inform Norris that he must abandon Elise for the sake of his career, and that the intoxicating love they feel together was never part of the universal plan, and thus must not continue.

Naturally, Damon's Norris, as only Damon characters can, follows his gut instincts and thus begins a seemingly impossible game of cat and mouse with the highest powers in the cosmos. In this, in what is an ingenious and refreshing piece of anti-action cinema, the bureau uses no special effects, no bendy buildings, no lasers, no guns or bombs at all. They merely stand in front of Damon at inconvenient times (on the way to a speech) and ask him politely to abandon his romance.

Of course, this is all the tip of a tricky conceptual iceberg in which The Adjustment Bureau movie itself serves as a satire of corporate America, where every decision - from eating and drinking to falling in love - needs to be cleared first with management, or the "suits upstairs". Scratch the surface, and it gets stranger still. For the film, at its base level, seems to be about pressures and anxieties that define the filmmaking experience itself. Here, Mitchell and Richardson are celestial script supervisors who are shaping the story of Norris's life, even as it unfolds. When they meet him, they do so in large, empty soundstages. And when things get tricky, they bring in the project supervisor from upstairs (aka the director), called Thompson and played by Terence Stamp.

It goes on like this throughout, and deeper still, into religion and fate, and free will itself. It ends, though, with an underwhelming sigh, as if the effort it took to get us there had drained the filmmakers of closing ideas. But ultimately, Damon and Blunt's easy chemistry smoothes over the wrinkles, while the prospect of Hollywood cinema going clever again remains a cheery one indeed.