Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau Movie Review: A Bunch of Empty Shirts

The empty shirts go marching in.

What is it with black actors who achieve critical praise and then start taking Magical Negro roles? Morgan Freeman and Will Smith are the prime examples, but now Anthony Mackie? The character actor who made some noise in The Hurt Locker? In The Adjustment Bureau, he plays Harry Mitchell, a member of an adjustment team (angels, perhaps?) who are able to make things happen in the world according to “The Plan.” Who designs The Plan? That would be The Chairman, a character we never see but whom Harry and his partner Richardson (John Slattery) speak of in hushed tones. I leave it to you to decide who or what The Chairman is or represents.

The plan they have to adjust is that of David Norris (Matt Damon), a young Congressman running for a Senate seat. He loses due to an unfortunate incident involving a mooning stunt at a college reunion. Never mind that I find it very hard to believe a good-looking, popular wunderkind would go from 10 points up to losing an election for something so ridiculous, but then we also live in a country where a politician is forced to resign for sending lewd photos to a consenting adult. The Plan sets him up with a meeting with Elise (Emily Blunt) just before his concession speech. Her words of advice and passionate kiss provide the impetus for an inspired speech that will set him back on the path toward future success. Unfortunately for the Bureau, David becomes immediately infatuated with Elise and for some reason the pursuit of that relationship will derail his pre-determined track.

The chemistry between Damon and Blunt is truly the film’s high point. Writer-director George Nolfi is wise to leave these two charismatic and gifted actors to do their thing. Many of their scenes feel natural and unscripted and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn there was a lot of improvisation permitted. The romance element is only one of the plot elements, not the entire point. I think this keeps it from becoming sappy, although as they continue to meet randomly over the years, sometimes after David has deserted her or neglected to call her (through no fault of his own), Elise’s acceptance of his explanations begin to defy credulity.

Chemistry between two good-looking actors may be enough to satisfy some people, but the depth of character written into David and Elise is rather limited. But however shallow they might be, it’s nothing in comparison to one-dimensionality of nearly every supporting player, who exist merely to service the plot. This is the source of my lament about Mackie above. He’s gone from playing a human character written with some level of complexity, to playing the very definition of an “empty shirt.” The same goes Slattery, who is so excellent and so effective as Mad Men’s Roger Sterling that I can’t understand what drew him to a role that demands little more than rote recitation of expository dialogue. The only other significant character is Charlie (Michael Kelly), David’s friend and campaign manager. He too is as thin a character as the cameos by Jon Stewart and James Carville used to add an element of realism to the film.

Terrence Stamp turns up about halfway through as a bureaucrat from the upper echelons of the Adjustment Bureau. When Richardson and Harry can’t help David on the right path, Stamp’s Thompson is brought in for his unforgiving methods. An actor like Stamp adds some heft to the sagging proceedings, but Thompson is no more interesting than Richardson, except insofar as he’s willing go the extra step to stick to The Plan.

The rest of the movie is devoted to philosophical musings regarding destiny and self-determination. This is where The Adjustment Bureau goes off course. Nolfi’s screenplay is very loosely based on a story by Philip K. Dick, whose work previously provided the basis for such interesting and inventive films as Blade Runner, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly. Even ignoring the facile execution of the subject matter, the mechanics of it barely make sense. The adjustment team (also the name of Dick’s story) operates in a physical world with rules, but they are able to summon changes at the point of a finger and move between disparate locations by passing through doors, but when Norris is about to accidentally meet Elise on a bus, Harry has to chase it down on foot.

Nolfi and his production team (including the great cinematographer John Toll) give us an authentic New York. The film looks great with lots of location shooting in places we don’t often see. Production designer Kevin Thompson worked on the similarly ministerial Michael Clayton which also has lots of scenes taking place in steely cobalt office buildings. But then it all adds up to what Hollywood does best: expert productions supported by flimsy stories and mediocre dialogue. Just because they tried to artificially bloat the story with the appearance of high-mindedness doesn’t mean it is high-minded. Sorry, but merely aspiring to a higher calling isn’t enough. You’ve got to achieve something if you want the praise.

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