YATES: Film offers a fresh, stylistic take on the butterfly effect

“City of Angels” meets “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in this week’s review of “The Adjustment Bureau.” The film is being dubbed a romantic thriller, and while it does tell a love story, it ultimately theorizes on the issue of free will. Veteran screenwriter George Nolfi makes an impressive directorial debut thanks in part to a notable performance by Matt Damon. This isn’t the first time the duo has teamed up to make cinema magic – Nolfi was a co-screenplay writer on “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Now behind the camera, Nolfi brings the same chaotic energy from the Bourne series to “The Adjustment Bureau.”

Charismatic congressman David Norris (Damon) fills the void in his life with a busy life of politics, but a chance encounter with dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) turns everything he knows upside down. After repeat run-ins with Sellas, Norris is convinced it is fate, but a higher power has other plans. The Adjustment Bureau – an organization meant to keep things running “according to plan” — steps in to keep the two apart, declaring they have other plans for Norris. Despite the efforts of the Bureau, Norris finds Sellas after a search that lasts several years, determined to eschew the destiny that has been set for him and instead write his own future — one that includes the woman he loves.

The love story works thanks in part to tremendous chemistry between Damon and Blunt. It is a bit hokey at first, as the self-made Norris seems to mope for three long years while searching for someone he barely knows, something that comes off extremely out of character. Yet once the couple reunites, the sparks fly. Nolfi wisely leaves out typical gratuitous sex scenes, opting instead for the subtleties of a long awaited lingering kiss — a moment so important it is warned by the Bureau that “if they kiss, it all changes.” Having first met my future wife in grade school and finally confessing my life-long crush to her eighteen years later on a very serendipitous night myself, I could easily relate to the love at first sight relationship shared by the couple in the film.

The architecture of the world inside “The Adjustment Bureau” is brilliant. Nolfi constructs God and his angels as a modern day corporation, with God cleverly referred to as the “chairman.” The film is set in New York City, and the angels use doors throughout the city to move through space, able to cross miles with the single step through a doorway. The plot moves quickly, revealing additional details about the Bureau as it unfolds. Little about the Bureau is known at first, making it a bit frustrating as it serves as the film’s antagonist, but in due time all is revealed. “The Adjustment Bureau” plays out like an inner-city cat and mouse game between a omnipotent deity and a cantankerous mortal soul. You do, however, find yourself questioning the motives of God in the film, as he employs somewhat bumbling angels and seems to have a habit of changing the master plan on the fly.

The film is a lighthearted hypothesis about destiny and free will, and leaves the audience questioning the random moments of life. As one of the angels explains the seemingly inconsequential moments in life to Norris, such as the occasional stumble or the spilling of coffee, “sometimes it’s chance…sometimes it’s us.” It was a surprisingly humorous and action-packed love story that lived up to the billing of a romantic thriller – a hybrid genre I didn’t realize existed until now. It offers a fresh, stylistic take on the butterfly effect and examines the ripple effect our actions may have on the rest of the world around us.

Travis Yates

WIEGENSTEIN: film able to balance between sci-fi and swoony philosophy worlds

“The Adjustment Bureau” is a solid piece of entertainment – it’s too bad the PR people for the film seem to be trying their hardest to cover that up. From a bland title to a lackluster tag line (“Fight for your fate,” snore), the zing of energy is absent. While this makes watching the movie itself a pleasant surprise, I worry that the greyscale snooze of an ad campaign may result in few people getting to experience that surprise for themselves. Still, whatever the weekend grosses may prove, “The Adjustment Bureau” brings a somewhat lofty premise down to Earth quite well.

David (Matt Damon), an aspiring politician, runs into the intriguing dancer Elise (Emily Blunt, finally getting the sort of leading roles she deserves) twice by happy coincidence Of course, we are quickly informed that in fact, coincidence doesn’t exist — what the two lovers consider a twist of fate is seen by a group of shadowy, fedora-wearing men as a severe mistake in The Plan (capital letters most certainly implied). It’s then up to two of these overseers — “adjusters,” as the film’s lexicon terms them. After pulling David out of his usual reality and revealing their vast network of intricately planned “accidents,” a team (most notably John Slattery and the always-excellent Anthony Mackie) declares that the reencounter with Elise was an error of the highest order, and the two should be forever separated. Well, you know what happens when you tell a pair of crazy kids in love something like that.

Matt Damon is one of a number of actors lucky enough to possess that invaluable quality of likeability. (George Clooney might be the exemplar of this sect.) So when “The Adjustment Bureau” opens with a montage of his character gladhanding among New York citizens in a bid for the Senate, it seems natural to see him in front of adoring crowds. Using the reasoning that David and Elise are “destined” often seems a cop-out, but Blunt and Damon have the kind of cheeky chemistry that makes an audience agree with an idea like fate if only to keep these characters onscreen together for a while longer.

The themes of predestination and free will have always run rampant in the writing of Philip K. Dick, the futuristic writer from which “The Adjustment Bureau” draws its plot (“Minority Report” and “Blade Runner” can also thank him for their stories). Here, though, his musings are brought to life in a decidedly romantic fashion by writer/director George Nolfi (in a directing debut, having formerly penned both “Ocean’s Twelve” and “The Bourne Ultimatum”), and the story is improved because of it.

Rather than remain in the mechanized world of several other Dick adaptations, Nolfi’s script is unafraid to bring an element of spirituality to his “adjusters,” who admit that they’ve sometimes been referred to as “angels.” He’s wise to leave this vague — ten to one, the ideas the audience will infer will be more meaningful than anything a throwaway dialogue exchange could ever be. And while there are other areas of plot that could be improved with more detail — the ins-and-outs of Elise’s life, to name a notable example — “The Adjustment Bureau” is able to balance itself between the worlds of sci-fi and swoony philosophy, getting the best of both.

Anna Wiegenstein