Friday 4 March 2011

Sliding doors: "The Adjustment Bureau"

"It's Bourne meets Inception!," screams the poster quote for The Adjustment Bureau, suggesting something thrillingly high-concept while sounding suspiciously like a line snipped from a salivating preview rather than an actual review. There's a reason I mention this, because George Nolfi's film itself turns out to be firmly middling of concept: far from the slam-bang action movie the ad campaign promises, it is at heart a romance along Serendipity or Sliding Doors lines, being pitched at blokes who wouldn't ordinarily go within a thousand miles of that sort of thing.

Matt Damon plays David Norris, a youthful superstar candidate whose run for high office is derailed after photos of him mooning at a college reunion find their way into the tabloids. While preparing his concession speech, he runs into Elise (Emily Blunt), the sort of free spirit who crashes weddings and then hides out in the men's room when her cover is busted. With her childish streak - dunking the politico's BlackBerry in his morning coffee - these two are evidently made for one another. Alas, they're not destined to be together, for Norris is being tailed by trenchcoated-and-trilbied agents of Fate, whose sole employment is to engineer the ripples and recalibrations - the missed calls and unhappy accidents - that will keep the two lovebirds apart.

There's a point 25 minutes into The Adjustment Bureau when the film threatens to become the runaround the movies have made out of every other Philip K. Dick adaptation (think Minority Report, Imposter, Next), having set up David Norris as an individual who can't easily escape his own fate. Yet Nolfi mostly keeps it grounded: a typical, wryly funny episode sees the candidate trying to hail a cab to get across town to Elise's ballet rehearsals, while the agents look on, checking their fingernails, having apparently instructed all the drivers to keep on going. (Anyone who's ever attempted to navigate Manhattan at rush hour will surely know how our hero feels.)

Grounded in pointed ideas, too: it's perfect casting that the Bureau should be so archaic, so antiquated and inflexible in its thinking its forces are headed up by John Slattery from 60s ad drama Mad Men, and that a black employee should become this agency's whipping boy for allowing David and Elise to cross paths in the first place. The Bureau's inflexibility comes in stark contrast to Elise's ballet career - we see more of Blunt actually dancing than we did of La Portman in Black Swan - or indeed the breezy casualness of the leads' interactions: watching Damon and Blunt stroll (rather than dash) along sunny Greenwich Village backstreets, it's not Bourne you're reminded of so much as something like Before Sunrise.

If Nolfi's film shares anything with Inception, to address the other reference point, it's a particular eye for urban architecture. Its very plot appears composed of lobbies, reading rooms and antechambers, corresponding to the map of the universe Slattery carries around with him. (We even get a diversion to MOMA's angular modernism, although Nolfi isn't inclined to try and top what 2008's The International did inside the Guggenheim.) Yet its effects are persistently subtler: the agents use the doors of townhouses to open onto car parks, Yankee Stadium, Liberty Island, anywhere they want to go - portals that mere mortals pass through only to find humdrum boardrooms and cloakrooms.

Speaking of which: Nolfi displays an admirable willingness to leave his leading man alone in a room - and draw his protagonists' troubles out that way - rather than incessantly spinning the world on its axis. It's true that in The Candidate, the Hollywood of the 1970s permitted Robert Redford - very much the Damon of his day - to operate in a more closely realist key as a political figure plagued with greater doubts than whether or not he was going to get the girl; by contrast, David Norris comes to be confronted by the obvious, growling malevolence of Terence Stamp, and by the existential dilemma faced by Ashton Kutcher in the underrated The Butterfly Effect - whether to give up the girl you love out of the knowledge that being with her will only make her life worse.

Yet the underlying theme of individuals rising up against nannying, patriarchal or outright tyrannical states has an odd timeliness, and the modesty with which The Adjustment Bureau pursues these themes and ideas - looking to Ashton Kutcher B-movies for inspiration, rather than (as Inception surely did) setting out to reinvent the wheel - is atypical, and not unappealing. Some of its impact has been muffled by the cash and rewrites that invariably separate A-features from their B equivalents, but it remains an unusually formed event movie, making something ruminative and stylish from the notion we might all be at the mercy of forces far greater than ourselves.

The Adjustment Bureau opens nationwide today.

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