The Adjustment Bureau , adapted from Philip K. Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team,” is the most engrossing, intelligent, and stimulating science fiction fable since Knowing, a gem that I personally believe was not given its dues. It takes one of the oldest and most unknowable of humanity’s spiritual quandaries – fate vs. free will – and applies it to a simple but brilliantly executed love story. The result is an emotionally complex and endlessly fascinating film, one that has a legitimate argument to make and isn’t content to simply go along with absolutes. It’s not a matter of whether there is fate or free will; it’s a matter of our very existence, of our actions determining when and how the concepts can individually or collectively apply. On both sides of the spectrum, choices can be made.
The film is above all an intense and absorbing thriller, one that pits everyday people against forces they cannot comprehend. It’s founded on the premise that an omnipotent being known only as The Chairman formulates a plan for the course of someone’s life. Because there is such a thing as chance, it is possible for someone to deviate from his or her plan. This is where the Adjustment Bureau comes in. It’s like a divine watchdog group; if a plan isn’t being followed, specially assigned men in dress suits and hats will step in and make the necessary alterations to get that person back on track. Only in extreme cases do they have to resort to “resetting” a person’s mind. They’re headquartered in, of all places, an office building in New York City; the interiors are neat and orderly, and are a haven for desks and filing cabinets.
A charismatic New York politician named David Norris (Matt Damon) stumbles onto this not long after losing his early lead for the U.S. Senate. The night he gave his resignation speech, he ran into and immediately fell in love with a British woman named Elise (Emily Blunt) in a Waldorf Astoria bathroom; his plan dictated that he was never supposed to see her again, but because a Bureau agent named Harry (Anthony Mackie) failed to intervene, he ended up riding with her on the bus. Matters are further complicated when, upon arriving early for work at a venture capital firm, he catches Bureau agents examining staff members, who are all frozen in time. Norris is caught and drugged, although he does try to run away. Upon awakening in an abandoned warehouse, an agent named Richardson (John Slattery) warns him to stay away from Elise and to never reveal the existence of the Bureau, not even accidentally.
To describe any more of the plot would do you and the film a great disservice. I would rather not get into a discussion about the preposterous nature of the story. Of course it’s preposterous. But films often do not work under the same constraints of reality, and this one is no exception; as it’s being projected up on the screen, The Adjustment Bureau follows a surprising pattern of logic, one both plausible and understandable. Those who see it may not believe it, but they can’t in good conscience say they weren’t in some way challenged. There are many ways this film will force you to think. You have the philosophic debate between a deterministic and random universe. You have the intricate nature of the pacing and editing, especially when Norris learns how to use doorways as portals, as the Bureau agents do. Most significantly, you have a recap of history; when you consider that we as humans are responsible for two World Wars, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the 9/11 attacks, a little divine guidance doesn’t sound so bad.
But the real goal isn’t to criticize or condemn. What was clear to me was writer/director George Nolfi’s intention to string together a supernatural mystery and a romance. He succeeded, but more importantly, he kept me along for the ride. Partly, this is because I was actually made to care about the characters; although they fall for each other rather quickly, I still believed that Norris and Elise were in love. There was affection, yes, but there was also urgency, desperation, and devotion. Where appropriate, there was also restraint, and I really do think certain filmmakers forget how important that is in a love story.
The film also has its fair share of special effects, although they’re not used in traditional fashion – which is to say, the shots are not drowned in a sea digital wizardry. In their subtlety, they’re highly effective; they make us marvel at how they were done, but at the same time, we’re allowed to keep focus on the characters and the emotion of the scene. If after all this The Adjustment Bureau still ends exactly the way you expect it to end, it will have earned that right, for it’s not about the ending so much as everything leading up to it. I sincerely hope audiences take this film seriously. It’s great entertainment, but more to the point, it has something to say. It isn’t often a movie has the power to amuse you while at the same time getting you to consider the possibilities.