Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau

Roger Ebert (seemingly) has a single criterion for speculative fiction movies. Everyone who saw Knowing hated it, as I’ve mentioned previously, whereas he rated it one of the top ten films of the year. I saw The Box, and I felt rather like Yahtzee Croshaw reviewing Dark Void–it was down, then up, then down again. I watched what I accurately predicted to be a pedestrian adaptation of an excellent short story in the first thirty minutes, then it somehow morphed into a really tense, really involving, sorta supernatural thriller. But then it kept going and came right back around into the same bad CGI, hamfisted references to his childhood crap I’ve come to expect from Richard Kelly. And he gave it three stars for not being boring. I feel somewhat the same way seeing The Adjustment Bureau as he did seeing The Box, but I expect I’m going to open up his review and find it a one star after I finish writing this. (For the record, the same thing happened for Red Riding Hood and The Green Hornet, both of which I gave three stars.) Film being subjective, perhaps being a young man, I have a higher tolerance for crap than he does.

The Adjustment Bureau is indeed an excellent adaptation of a short story that just keeps going. I have no idea where the original story ended, but it was likely somewhere before the tacked on third act from Hollywood. It feels like it’s at the lowest moment in the feature, after everything has gone wrong. I’m not saying how it ends, I’m saying that’s where it felt conclusive, but that was barely 70 minutes in. Except, the damnedest thing happened throughout that entire Hollywood act three thing: the movie kept me hooked. I was there, and I cared about these people, and I wanted to see how their story ended up. This movie made me ponder a number of questions about fate and about predestination and how we all interrelate. It made me think a lot more than Inception did, and it made me feel more than The King’s Speech. I don’t know if it’s a better film than both of those. Oh, bollocks–I know perfectly well what I think. And if you’re reading this, then you probably care what I think, too.

Matt Damon is Chuck David Norris, a candidate for Senator of New York State who became state Governor at the age of 24. (Someone tell me if I have those backwards.) He’s a young, driven man–he feels a burning need to fill the hole in his heart left by a family tragedy at a tender age with the approval of others, and he does this in politics. He fills that void in his life with applause of voters. However, his first run for Senator ends in a loss. Defeated and with his dreams broken, he rehearses his gracious loser speech in the men’s room. When he finds out that a ballerina who crashed a wedding is also in there. She tells him that he should be authentic–that she likes him for the photo of him mooning his college friends at a reunion that lost him the election. And as he steps out to deliver his gracious loser speech, he stops. He looks around him and he can’t do it anymore. He talks about how he can only have two colours of ties–red or blue. Yellow makes him seem frivolous. He mentions the consultant they hired to find the exact perfect amount of scuff for his shoes. And the sensation around this impromptu outburst of authenticity propels him to national attention as a future candidate.

This takes but a half hour to forty-five minutes of film, but it’s all of these actions, these events and these things that lead Norris to discover the vast conspiracy controlling his life three years down the road. Three years later, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt), the young ballerina, by chance on a bus. And they hit it off immediately, which ends in her giving him her number and her first name. He arrives at work ten minutes early and discovers that everyone in his life is having their thoughts and reasoning patterns adjusted before he arrives. This leads to a sit down with the boss of his personal agent about how these guys work. They work in the subtlest movements that leave the least ripples in time. They work, tirelessly, night and day, to preserve a grand plan. A plan that ends in Norris as President, Elise as a world famous ballerina and choreographer and both of them apart. This being a movie, David Norris vows to fight for Elise. And this being an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story, the other guys are far better equipped.

For those of you still wondering, Roger Ebert’s only criterion for a speculative fiction film such as The Adjustment BureauKnowing or The Box is that he can watch the whole thing and always want to know what happens next. He doesn’t want to watch a film where the stakes are known from the outset. He wants to see a movie that starts at A and moves to wingdings after H. I have a few more criteria for sci-fi–you can read the post–but when it comes to movies like this, I’m satisfied with Ebert’s view. Matt Damon is an ingenious choice for David Norris–a young, impulsive hothead politico with more brains than you think he has. He spends the entire feature surprising Elise, the titular Bureau and me with his cleverness. Emily Blunt is also good as Elise. Believable, sensible–the girl who comes into our protagonist’s life and shakes him around without being a manic pixie dream girl. She’s just a girl that works very well with him. Anthony Mackie, John Slattery and Terence Stamp are all great at representing the titular Bureau on film. All of their performances, the cinematography, the editing, the direction–it’s a shame this movie didn’t come out last year.

Ask Shutter Island how many nods you get for being released in the first quarter of the year. FOUR STARS