In George Nolfi’s light-hearted sci-fi thriller The Adjustment Bureau, a young politician named David Norris is publicly disgraced, ruining his Senate campaign and darkening his hopes of someday ascending to the Presidency.
But a beautiful woman named Elise (Emily Blunt) gives him hope through a pep talk and a kiss during their chance encounter in a men’s room. (Seriously.)
A few minutes later, he learns that life is not what it seems. Divinely appointed special agents called “case workers” are manipulating the lives of men and women around the world, because men and women just mess things up when they’re given freewill.
So David spends the rest of the movie running from agents (like Jason Bourne); trying to maintain a fragile connection with a beautiful woman who doesn’t realize what’s at stake (like Jason Bourne); struggling to cope with his awakening conscience (like Jason Bourne); and daring to fight back against the powers that have manipulated him, his colleagues, the media, and everyone else (like Jason Bourne).
It’s a fun, whimsical, witty time at the movies. Damon and Blunt have surprising romantic chemistry. And Damon runs well, looking likely to take the Always-Running Action Hero medal from Tom Cruise.
And many of the more philosophical moviegoers have been stirred up into a frenzy of debate on age-old questions of Free Will and Determinism.
Rather than try to contribute anything substantial to that debate in this short reflection on the film, I’d rather suggest a few things that I would have done had I been an Adjustment Bureau agent hovering at George Nolfi’s shoulder and manipulating his decisions.
If you’re going to tack a “True Love Conquers All” conclusion onto Philip K. Dick’s remarkably contrary short story, convince us that this is true love.
Let me get this straight: David and Elise meet in a men’s room and, a few flirtatious words later, are making out. Not much later, they’ve consummated their infatuation, and then stand around discovering that there’s already a “significant other” involved. So they ponder whether they’re really ready to talk about “love.”
At this point, a bit of the relational authenticity we saw in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would have been nice. But no, the real lesson of the movie has more to do with “Your Adolescent Crush Conquers All.”
Sure, as with Leo in Titanic, there’s a sacrifice involved in the name of love at the end, but I’m blowing my referee’s whistle anyway. Norris, if you’re making those kinds of gambles already, you aren’t ready for marriage, and you certainly aren’t ready to be a senator.
(Ah, but then, how many American Senators prove their discernment and integrity? Maybe you’re exactly what America loves. Somebody whose falls from grace give us almost as much pleasure as the virtue we feel in pardoning you later and giving you a second chance.)
Re-imagine the Adjustment Bureau “case workers.”
Like most philosophical thrillers (The Matrix, Blade Runner, Inception), The Adjustment Bureau has a system of gadgetry and gimmicks. The case workers all wear hats that help them remain “under cover.” And they have access to Holy iPads that have an app that serves as a GPS for human destinies.
To make this work, you have to commit to the ideas. And The Adjustment Bureau takes an unconventional approach, treating these details fairly lightly...tongue almost in cheek.
It’s a good move. This system is pretty hokey, but the film has such a winning spirit that it’s hard to get picky about the gimmickry.
But the case workers really got on my nerves. These guys—Terrence Stamp, John Slattery, and others—stand around like the angels in Wings of Desire, minus the intellects. They’re dumb, reactionary, they apparently keep women out of their organization, and they are all far too fond of one particular fashion—Mad Men suits and haircuts.
They must lose a lot of history-shaping time at the dry cleaners.
When David starts stepping through doors that open to other parts of town...come on, use your imagination!
Why must David step through the Bureau's stargates into some of the most familiar tourist attractions of the city? Yankee Stadium? The Museum of Modern Art? It’s all so predictable. Why not send him to some really interesting places?
I could go on, but I really can't muster hard feelings toward this movie. Even though it wears its Discussion Questions on its sleeve, it's so much more enjoyable than most post-Oscar-season entertainment.
And while the film plays in the shallow end of the pool, at least it doesn't paint God as a tyrant. It suggests that he might be merciful, willing to listen, and concerned about our desires. Freewill makes relationship with God possible, which is so much better than being fully programmed extensions of his imagination.
And yet, anyone with freewill is bound to make some poor decisions. Freewill allowed George Nolfi to make some regrettable storytelling choices here. But God accomplishes a great deal through imperfect materials all of the time. I’ve seen evidence of that in the conversations inspired by this rather frivolous film. And I pray he’ll make this somewhat snarky review worth your while.
So in the long list of films translating and transforming the stories of the ubiquitous Philip K. Dick, this falls in the “Watchable but Disappointing” category.
It’s inferior to Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly, but more enjoyable than Paycheck and Next.
Hopefully, upcoming adaptations of Ubik (directed by Michel Gondry) and Total Recall (a second adaptation, this time helmed by Len Wiseman) will be more substantial.
Finally, I applaud Nolfi for bringing Matt Damon onto the project, if only because the sight of Damon in a fedora is so striking that he may have just given the actor a successful audition for the upcoming Martin Scorsese biopic on Frank Sinatra.
The movie may not work. But the hat really does.