The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau (2011): United States – directed by George Nolfi

Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains some mild violent content, slightly mature themes, mild language

The Adjustment Bureau is not a standard sci-fi romantic thriller, as there is an interesting philosophical undercurrent that runs through much of the action.  And while it rarely rises to greatness, a good number of casual discussions will be started by a viewing.  Hard-core movie-goers will perhaps shy away from the simplicity of the themes, but casual seekers of entertainment will find something more to appreciate in the film.

Adapted from a Philip K. Dick short story, The Adjustment Bureau has just the right amount of plot to keep an audience engaged without becoming a science fiction epic.  David Norris (Matt Damon) is an up-and-coming politician.  The film opens as he runs for U.S. Senate, representing the state of New York.  His rough upbringing in Brooklyn has the masses cheering for him, but a slightly indiscreet photo ruins his chances of being elected.  But on the night of the election he runs into a young lady named Elise (Emily Blunt), and a tragic romance begins.

He bumps into her again, accidentally.  At the same time, a mysterious team of hatted men appear to be plotting against Norris.  Their failure leads to an encounter between the two would-be lovers on a bus, setting in motion a furious storm of events.  Norris accidentally arrives at his office a few minutes early, and finds his best friend and business/political partner Charlie Traynor (Michael Kelly) occupied.  Men are scanning his head with electronic wands, as he stands frozen with a cell phone pressed against his ear.  Norris runs but can’t escape, as the strange team of uniformed men catch up to him.

Norris soon learns that there is a team of adjusters in the world, keeping events running smoothly.  They don’t interfere in every element of everyone’s life, but focus on maintaining the important events.  They follow people’s plans and adjust random occurrences to keep the world on track.  They can’t read minds or force people to do things, they merely cause coffee to spill, or a car accident, or a quick breeze to knock over a hat.  Those types of adjustments.

Norris learns that he is not supposed to see Elise.  Their paths should not have crossed.  If he persists, both he and she will be destroyed, unable to pursue their careers to their full potential.  Naturally, love conquers all, and Norris insists on causing a problem for the bureau and its Chairman.

There are elements of many films at work here, such as The Matrix, Inception [review here], and Dark City.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as The Adjustment Bureau keeps its focus singular.  The main story is the romance between Elise and David, and it is effectively played out.  Damon is charming and believable as a promising politician, and Blunt is pretty and mischievous as the female lead.  Her character is much less delineated: they meet as she’s crashing a wedding at a hotel, but she’s a famous dancer in a contemporary dance company.  Her motives aren’t entirely clear, though both characters feel an inexplicable draw to each other, as though they were meant to be together.  The most remarkable thing about Elise, perhaps, is that she manages to stay in her dress for the final half-hour of the film.  The plunging neckline certainly necessitated a good deal of wardrobe tape to keep every bit exactly where it ought to stay, though the resulting cleavage is as distracting as it is in films like Pandorum [review here] or Paranormal Activity [review here].

The science fiction world is adequate, though the story never goes deep enough to fully address or work out the themes of free will and choice.  There are a few odd quirks to the construction of the bureau, but nothing a small suspension of disbelief won’t ignore.  They read everyone’s lives in their little notepads, but open water obscures the signal?  But they serve to explore some of the philosophical questions raised by the film, on a surface level.

The film has been used in many Christian environments to spark debate about God and the choices that He allows us to make (or are we free to choose however we wish?).  The film doesn’t necessarily espouse a particular worldview, religious or otherwise, but it is clear that love prevails if pursued persistently.  I applaud The Adjustment Bureau for raising such questions in a mainstream, entertaining film.  It isn’t complex enough to engage audiences who have already pondered these questions and wrestled with them in a variety of more obscure films, but it is a generally entertaining ride.  And, more importantly, a wider group of film-goers will see a movie that actually provokes discussion instead of merely massaging (or abusing) the senses.

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