Attitude Adjustment

Not even Matt Damon can save this not-quite love story.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 2, 2011

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Reading rainbow: Matt Damon (left) is kept away from his true love, Emily Blunt, in The Adjustment Bureau.

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Slowly but surely, Matt Damon has established himself as the most reliable actor of his generation. He’s not a showy performer, but more of a throwback to the relaxed craft of, say, Paul Newman. Damon wears his stardom easily, and I can’t think of a single bum performance he’s given. He also doesn’t make garbage. Unlike his Good Will Hunting sidekick Ben Affleck, you’ll never find Damon working for Michael Bay. He gravitates toward offbeat projects with distinguished pedigrees, collaborating with the likes of Soderbergh, Eastwood and the Coens. Even his bad movies are interesting, and always made for adults.

The Adjustment Bureau is that kind of bad movie. It’s a classy flop: All its sins are of ambition. Yet, it’s at least attempting something unconventional without talking down to the audience. And true to form, there’s a deeply committed Damon performance, which happens to be the best thing about it. Too bad it also kind of stinks.

Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, whose brain-twisting existential malaise has been adapted for everything from Blade Runner to Total Recall to Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau stars Damon as cocky, young politician David Norris. The plain-spoken Brooklyn native has a history of bar fights and frat-boy loutishness, but that’s not going to keep him from angling for a New York Senate seat. A distracting number of cameos litter the opening reels, as most of our exposition is delivered via Jon Stewart during Norris’ appearance on The Daily Show and even more crucial plot information is explained by James Carville and Mary Matalin on Meet The Press. The entire first act is an impressive game of Beltway Where’s Waldo, but this montage-heavy, ill-fated political campaign is hardly the stuff of compelling drama.

In the men’s room rehearsing his concession speech, Damon’s Norris meets a blowsy party-crasher played by Emily Blunt, kicking off a delightful back-and-forth of screwball banter. First-time director George Nolfi plays with the cavernous space of a luxury hotel lobby’s rest room, doubling up on mirrors, pushing in for intimacy, and basically cutting together one of the funniest, most off-handedly sexy scenes you’ll see this year. These two crazy, impetuous kids clearly belong together. Too bad the science-fiction plot says otherwise.

Enter the Adjustment Bureau, a collection of awesome character actors in fedoras clomping around en masse, bumping into people and causing so-called coincidences that rupture the patterns of the CGI graphs appearing in their antiquated notebooks. Answering to somebody called The Chairman, who’s supposed to maybe be God, they work like trenchcoat-clad angels, taking orders from memos delivered in faded manila envelopes.

Soon, this potentially interesting story is torpedoed by exposition-heavy claptrap. Most of The Adjustment Bureau’s running time is spent with one familiar face after another (John Slattery, Anthony Mackie, finally even the legendary Terence Stamp) sitting down with Damon and explaining, for the umpteenth time, that he’s not allowed to go home and have amazing sex with Emily Blunt because that’ll disrupt The Chairman’s plan. Then everybody gets up and chases each other around again.

In some scenes, Bureau members can merely point with their finger and shatter somebody’s foot. In others, they have to run after them. Their superpowers are arbitrary depending on the whims of the plot, which is all just an excuse for more classically Dick-ish debates on predetermination versus free will. And apparently magic fedoras allow access through secret doorways that can teleport you across entire city blocks.

Nolfi, a pal of Damon’s who wrote Ocean’s Twelve and the third Jason Bourne picture, is clearly trying for one of those Somewhere In Time or Lake House kind of star-crossed romances with a sci-fi twist. It’s a chaste, bloodless picture with the retro costumes clearly harkening back to Hollywood movies of a bygone era. But the problem is that Damon and Blunt have such delightful chemistry together, the plot contortions keeping them apart feel more annoying than suspenseful.

There are several glimmers of great ideas at work here, like the notion that Blunt’s dancing career would be hampered by Damon’s political ambitions, and is it worth being with somebody you love if you know in advance that you are going to ruin their life? But The Adjustment Bureau doesn’t stick with that, or really any other concept for very long, arbitrarily moving the goalposts and piling on the tiresome chase scenes, before collapsing in a deus ex machina that reeks of studio meddling.

I would have rather seen a movie that’s just a love story about the politician and the dancer, and leave the men with silly hats out of it altogether.

Director: George Nolfi
Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt and Lisa Thoreson
Running time: 99 minutes 

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