The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Adjustment Bureau
John Slattery tries to convince Matt Damon that free will is phony in The Adjustment Bureau.

The Adjustment Bureau is an odd, fascinating film. One part thriller, one part romance, and one part philosophical exploration, it has a little something for everybody. If that mixture sounds unholy, credit writer/director George Nolfi for pulling off his adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story via good old-fashioned intelligence.

Matt Damon stars as New York Senatorial candidate David Norris. He's close to winning the election, only to be foiled by scandal at the last moment. While licking his wounds in a hotel restroom, he meets a young woman named Elise (Emily Blunt). The attraction is immediate; he likes the fact that she's brash enough to sneak into the men's room to have a few drinks, while she likes the fact that he's a politician whose scandal showed a very down-to-earth, human side. Not long after, he meets her again on a public bus, where the flirtation continues. David gets Elise's number and promises to call.

Before he can ever pick up the phone, he is visited by a mysterious group of men in suits and hats, led by Mr. Richardson (played by “Mad Men” co-star John Slattery). They inform David that they are part of an organization dedicated to “making sure things turn out the way they are supposed to.” David, it seems, has accidentally peeked through a curtain the public is never supposed to see. Richardson tells him that being with Elise is most definitely not part of the plan, and that if he continues to see her, his memory will be erased by the group. A rogue member of the bureau, Harry (Anthony Mackie), meets with David privately, confiding that his romance with Elise could cause ripples that “the Chairman” wants to avoid. David, however, keeps finding himself in Elise's orbit. As their love grows, he decides to try to outwit the bureau in order to be with her, and to seek answers about why they are supposed to be kept apart. Richardson and the next higher-up supervisor, Thompson (Terence Stamp), use their special powers to repeatedly throw roadblocks in his path.

The ads for The Adjustment Bureau make it seem like Damon's character is being chased by an evil organization. One of the things I like most about the film is that it isn't true. Rather than going down a typical “decent guy fighting the villains” route, the story aims for something more complicated. Richardson and his team have an altruistic goal; their job is to maintain an important balance in the world, even if doing so occasionally inconveniences one of its citizens. While the individual members don't always understand the overall plan, they know and trust that they are working for a higher power. God is never mentioned directly in the script, although you could certainly read it that way. At the very least, the movie is an exploration of free will versus determinism. David Norris thinks he lives according to free will; subsequently, he wants to choose to be with Elise. The bureau informs him that, to some extent, his life choices are decided for him, making him powerless to resist. Like a train on rails, there is only one way to go. I don't want to give away the plot twists, but I do want to convey that The Adjustment Bureau finds some very intriguing ways to advance its theme, and that is what kept me hooked from start to finish. David must decide whether to continue fighting for his free will, knowing that it could come with a devastating cost.

Isn't it amazing to see a big studio release address such thoughtful themes? Rest assured that the film isn't just a cerebral experience. There is also a heavy emotional component. This is actually one of the most romantic pictures I've seen in a long time. At the heart of the plot is the intense love that David and Elise feel for one another. The pull of it is so strong that they are ultimately willing to take great risks to hold on to it. So many modern screen romances fail to resemble actual romance. The Adjustment Bureau understands that when you meet your soul mate, the only thing that matters is never letting them go. Damon and Blunt have authentic chemistry, which allows us to get deeply invested in the survival of their relationship.

Everything culminates in a third act that is wildly exciting. It isn't just the chase through New York City (which takes a terrific metaphysical turn), but also the knowledge that something real is at stake. If David is caught by the bureau, he will lose his true love and also all memory of her. If, by some chance, he can outrun them, he faces the unknown, which, while uncertain, at least allows some remote possibility for them to be together. Or so he hopes.

The Adjustment Bureau engaged both my head and my heart. Nolfi challenges you with some tough hypothetical conundrums, yet never allows the story to venture into egghead territory. The philosophical stuff compliments the front-and-center romance, rather than overwhelming it. I found myself totally enthralled by this movie – a feeling that increased the longer it went on. Sure, a couple of the supporting characters could have been a bit more developed, and you could probably poke holes in some of the “explanations.” But finding a movie that can so successfully pull off romance and otherworldly mystery is rare. When one comes along, it's something that shouldn't be missed.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Adjustment Bureau is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.