‘The Adjustment Bureau’ is a romance in the guise of a sci-fi thriller

by Bill Wine
Posted 12/4/20

Set in contemporary New York City, it's a provocative and stylish romantic fantasy suspense thriller with a Big Brother theme. And if its “Inception”-like ambitions aren't quite realized in terms of originality and execution, it's nonetheless intellectually stimulating, emotionally enveloping, and thoroughly engrossing.

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‘The Adjustment Bureau’ is a romance in the guise of a sci-fi thriller

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Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

Question: Is “The Adjustment Bureau” (2011) a thriller or a romance? Answer: Yes. And it works splendidly as either or both.

Set in contemporary New York City, it's a provocative and stylish romantic fantasy suspense thriller with a Big Brother theme. And if its “Inception”-like ambitions aren't quite realized in terms of originality and execution, it's nonetheless intellectually stimulating, emotionally enveloping, and thoroughly engrossing.

Matt Damon stars as David Norris, an ambitious and charismatic politician who seems on the brink of winning a New York seat in the U.S. Senate. But he loses big-time. And while preparing to deliver his obligatory concession speech, he meets Elise Sallas, a modern ballerina played by Emily Blunt as a flirtatious spitfire and inadvertent femme fatale.

The two hit it off immediately, she providing the instant inspiration for him to walk into that room and deliver the speech of his political life, thus kicking off what appears to be a political comeback and a promising romantic relationship.

But mysterious forces -- a group of fedora-sporting bureaucrats -- are intent on keeping these lovers apart. And these shadowy operatives capture David and explain to him that they are in charge of adjusting his reality so that he will not have met Emily. Why? Because that is not part of their master plan. Huh?

They get their way but, later, David runs into her again.

So the bad guys tell David that if he sees the woman he obviously loves but was never supposed to meet again, they could be forced to "tamper with" him, or the two could live out a life together that might be one of quiet desperation. On the other hand, if the two remain apart, each has in store an impressive destiny, his in politics, hers in the arts.

Debuting writer-director George Nolfi loosely based his intriguing 2011 exploration of predestination, free will, and the role of chance in our lives on a short story by Philip K. Dick.

Interestingly, one possible adjustment that viewers may find themselves arguing about afterward is a choice that director Nolfi made: to do his big Twilight Zone-ish reveal about a half-hour in. It's a strategy that sacrifices the surprise element in the name of enriching suspense.

Regardless, Nolfi employs an impressively light tone throughout, especially when you consider the tricky philosophical and metaphorical "behind the curtain" subject matter, and even when the story evolves into a desperate and intense chase and Damon seems Bourne again.

Ultimately, the puppet master element takes a back seat to the love story at its center. And the film rests squarely on the urgency and resolve of the central romantic relationship, which Damon and Blunt, with their unforced chemistry, make work like gangbusters. Sparks fly in all their crucial scenes. And they ground it in recognizably passionate, three-dimensional human behavior. Ultra-romantic? Sure. But also real enough for the ready suspension of our disbelief.

A supernatural conspiracy thriller/charmer that pits true love against predestined fate, “The Adjustment Bureau” is well worth chasing down.

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