The worst thing to happen to a film critic is to watch a movie that leaves an utterly ambivalent impression when it is over. Give us something to either love or loathe so we can dive into the film's merits (or lack thereof). Mediocrity is the enemy of critics whether they reside in Tokyo or Tulsa. I've met my nemesis this week and its name is The Adjustment Bureau.
The Adjustment Bureau is bland, uninspired and without suspense, a few of the most damning words that can be attached to a thriller. It's the sort of film that I like to call a "flatliner." Not based on the 1990 Julia Roberts picture with the same name, a flatliner has a steady, never-wavering metronomic quality that lasts throughout the movie. These films never deliver highs or lows, achieve good or bad moments, or anything that will cause the audience's heart rate to quicken. Flatliners just lumber forward and then finish with the same tepid whimper they maintained throughout the story. The Adjustment Bureau is a perfect example of a flatliner -- dull, average and forgettable.
Matt Damon plays David Norris, a hotshot politician running for a senate seat in New York. Coming from a hardscrabble upbringing in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood and without parents, Norris is charismatic and popular, yet continuously does things to damage his career from moving up the political ladder. He gets into fights, he moons buddies at a college reunion and the media is always around to swoop in and deliver the blows in a headline in all capital letters.
On the cusp of delivering a concession speech, Norris wanders into the men's toilet to practice and meets Elise (Emily Blunt), a fetching, feisty woman who obviously has chemistry with Norris as they trade banter and deep kisses right there in the bathroom. To be fair, it is a very swanky room, but nothing screams true love like making out next to a bunch of urinals in the first couple of minutes after meeting someone. Thus begins the off and on courtship of David and Elise, though the decision to stay together isn't really up to them.
Who decides if David and Elise are to be a couple? In The Adjustment Bureau, it is a gaggle of mysterious, sharp-dressed men who don fedoras, have the power to read thoughts and move objects and walk through doors that lead them through the city in a secret labyrinth only they access. The men call themselves "the adjustment bureau" and they work for "The Chairman" (you know -- the Absolute Being, Yahweh, Allah or God as we like to say here in the Bible Belt). It seems these gentlemen monitor life on blinking, hi-tech maps and when things go off path, they show up to get them back on schedule. David and Elise are not supposed to be together according to the Chairman's plan. They must rely on ideas such as fate and destiny to fight against the wishes of the bureau.
After seeing George Nolfi's work as a director, he didn't get the job based on anything connected to creativity as The Adjustment Bureau is as lackluster as eating a plate of wet noodles when you really want something prepared by Mario Batali. One of the things that hurts The Adjustment Bureau is the fedora wearing "case-workers" themselves. Too often they are spouting hokey dialouge that is so vague and indecipherable, it renders their conversations meaningless.
Sounds kind of fun in a way that could blend light science fiction, romance and suspense, right? Not really. The Adjustment Bureau is based on a 1954 short story by the legendary, influential sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick. Known for subjects relating to the metaphysical, social and political, Dick's novels and stories often look at difficult subject matter seen through the prism of "the future" that allowed him to make statements on the world around him (a common occurrence in good science fiction actually). Adapting Dick's work to the screen has been a hit and miss affair through the years. For every Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly, there's been a Paycheck, Next or The Adjustment Bureau.
Adapting and directing Dick's story is first timer George Nolfi. It appears Nolfi may have gotten the gig due to his previous working relationship with Damon as he wrote the screenplays for Ocean's Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum. Who you know is always important to advance your career, but in Hollywood, it's as vital as breathing. After seeing Nolfi's work as a director, he didn't get the job based on anything connected to creativity as The Adjustment Bureau is as lackluster as eating a plate of wet noodles when you really want something prepared by Mario Batali.
One of the things that hurts The Adjustment Bureau is the fedora wearing "case-workers" themselves. Too often they are spouting hokey dialogue that is so vague and indecipherable, it renders their conversations meaningless. The entire element of special hats delivering powers is just kind of silly too. Only when Terence Stamp shows up as "The Hammer" is there a sense of danger with these people. Stamp is icy, stone-faced and menacing. The film could have used more of Stamp and much less of the lightweight, semi-comical John Slattery (sorry Mad Men fans) to dose out some tension.
Other impressions I'm left with after watching the movie? Matt Damon looks goofy in a fedora. Some people can pull off the increasingly popular retro-stylings of a good trilby, bowler or boater, but Damon doesn't appear to be one of them. He looks kind of strange and resembles an awkward kid in one. Last week, my colleague Mr. O'Shansky questioned if he wanted to watch Damon being chased in yet another film and I have to second this opinion. I've seen enough of Damon being pursued by people hunting him down. And, in a single film, I've definitely seen enough of him running from someone whilst wearing a fedora.
The Adjustment Bureau isn't bad. Or good. That is its problem -- it isn't anything. It is just one of those movies that is just there. It's blah blah blah boring, flatlines from start to finish and when over, it is forgotten in a matter of hours.
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