Friday, March 18, 2011

'Bureau' a thriller full of wit and ideas

The sci-fi romance thriller “The Adjustment Bureau” is a reminder of the power of movies to affect us in unexpected ways and bring things to the fore that otherwise would have stayed dormant. After seeing “The Adjustment Bureau” I had the sort of meaningful father-son conversation you only see in, well, the movies. Any film that can do that must be doing something right.

“The Adjustment Bureau” is based on a story by Philip K. Dick, whose writing has been the inspiration for such great sci-fi films as “Blade Runner,” “Total Recall” and “Minority Report.” The scale of this latest adaptation is much smaller than those fillns and plays almost like a feature-length episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

The high-concept premise has David Norris, a politician (Matt Damon), meeting Elise, a dancer (Emily Blunt, “The Devil Wears Prada”), and having an instant connection, but the men of the titular bureau serve a higher power that must keep things to a specific plan. David and Elise being together is not part of the plan.

David accidentally gets a behind-the-scenes peek into the world of the bureau and is told to forget Elise. The problem is chance, something the bureau can't control, keeps bringing them together. This forces adjuster John Slattery (“Mad Men”) and his fellow members of the bureau go to greater lengths to keep them apart.

The film uses the plot as a mechanism for a discussion of free will versus predestination that, while not profound, is handled respectfully and intelligently.

Writer George Nolfi, directing his first film, finds the right touch for the material. It doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to figure out what the adjustment bureau is a metaphor for, but the film never gets heavy handed or preachy with its premise.

There's a sense of fun throughout the film. The way Slattery's Richardson contrives to keep David and Elise apart and how David keeps out-thinking him is genuinely clever. It is a solid cat-and-mouse game that is often ingenious and very entertaining.

What makes the film special is its two leads. Damon and Blunt are a perfect couple from the first second they appear together on screen. Right from their first scene, the audience is hooked. We want them to be together.

Every one of their scenes together has a romantic spark that hasn't been seen in movies for some time. Their chemistry is palpable and they trade barbs with the same precision you'd see in classic screwball comedies. Nolfi's script gives Damon and Blunt dialogue with real wit that they couldn't have delivered any better.

It is on the strength of their performance that the film works even when things like magic hats that allow the wearer to open a door and travel anywhere in the city are introduced. As silly as that may sound, there is actually a thrilling climatic chase in which Damon and Blunt jump around New York City using one of these hats.

While Damon and Blunt are the heart of film, the brain of the film is Anthony Mackie (“The Hurt Locker”) as a sympathetic adjuster, who has seen David's life manipulated one too many times. Damon and Mackie have several philosophical conversations that give the film weight.

Damon and Blunt are well supported. Slattery along with Terrance Stamp, who makes an appearance in the film as an employee higher up in the bureau, have tricky roles. They are preventing the protagonists from being apart, but they aren't traditional villains. When confronting Damon, the dynamic is almost like a principal scolding a delinquent student. Slattery and Stamp are stern, forceful and effective in their roles.

In an era of increasingly more bombastic action films, it is a pleasure and relief to see a thriller about ideas, people and love rather than explosions.

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