Dec 6, 2018
The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
2011’s The Adjustment Bureau is the directorial debut of screenwriter George Nolfi (Timeline, The Bourne Ultimatum) and is based on the 1954 Philip K. Dick short story “Adjustment Team”. But other than the basic premise of “our everyday lives are being secretly manipulated by unseen agents”, the short story and the movie have absolutely nothing to do with each other. And despite the legendary reputation of the original story’s author, the movie also has very little to do with the sci-fi genre, and seems to be more of a lightweight, faith-based dissertation on the nature of free will, with a rather simple love story as its primary case study.
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The film stars Matt Damon as Congressman David Norris, who runs for senator but finds himself plummeting in the polls due to a leaked photo of some vague prank he pulled in college. On the night of the election, the networks call the race for his opponent and David goes off to work on his concession speech.
He practices in the men’s room for a long time, thinking he’s alone, but then he’s startled by a noise from one of the stalls. A woman (Emily Blunt) comes out, explaining that she’s hiding from hotel security because she just crashed a wedding. David finds her craziness charming, and the two have an instantaneous attraction.
They kiss, but she runs off. David goes out to give his concession speech, and is inspired by the strange woman’s impulsiveness to go off-script. He delivers a heartfelt, bullshit-free speech that appears to indicate he still has a future in politics.
Cut to a few months later, and David is now working in the private sector. As he makes his way around New York City, a mysterious trilby-wearing group of men follows his every move. One of them, a man named Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) is instructed by his boss Richardson (John Slattery) to make sure David spills his cup of coffee on himself, which will force him to change clothes and thus miss the bus to work.
Alas, Harry sleeps past the appointed time, so David gets on the bus as usual. Luckily for him, the woman he had a chance encounter with three months prior is sitting there on the bus, with an empty seat next to her. The two of them hit it off once again, and unlike last time, David finds out her name is Elise, and also manages to get her phone number.
But when he gets to the office, everyone seems frozen in time and completely unresponsive. David sees men in black hazmat suits doing something peculiar to his partner’s head. He freaks out and tries to get away, but is taken through a door and instantly transported to an empty warehouse filled with more men in trilbies.
Richardson explains that they’re the Adjustment Bureau, which has been around since the dawn of mankind to help keep things in order. Whereas humans believe they have free will, the Bureau is actually making subtle tweaks to ensure they’re sticking to the “plan” developed by the “Chairman” (Sinatra is in charge of human destiny?), who’s strongly implied to be God, or something like God.
David is warned not to tell anyone of their existence or they’ll “reset” him, essentially lobotomizing him. He’s also told to stay away from Elise, and they burn the business card with her number on it.
But David continues to ride that same bus every day in the hopes of meeting Elise again. Skip to three years later, when he finally spots her and chases her down and they have lunch together. She tells him she’s a dancer, while David reveals he’s about to announce another run for the Senate.
The Adjustment Bureau springs into action and starts manipulating events to separate them and make sure David won’t be able to find her again, even causing a potentially deadly car wreck to keep David from getting to Elise’s dance recital. None of that works, however, and the two begin a relationship.
Over at Bureau headquarters, Richardson does a little digging, and discovers that in the original plan, David and Elise were meant to be together, and that was the plan for three decades, until it was recently revised by the Chairman. This is why the attraction is so strong between them, so the Bureau decides that they have to call in the big guns in the form of Thompson (Terence Stamp), whose nickname is “The Hammer” (Fred Williamson is in charge of human destiny?), to deal with things.
David is brought back to the empty warehouse, where Thompson explains why the Bureau interferes in human affairs: whenever they step away from being intimately involved, humanity brings about stuff like the Dark Ages, the Holocaust, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. He then tells David the real reason he can’t be with Elise: He has a big future in politics, including a potential presidential run, but Elise’s impetuous nature is going to derail that.
Also, Elise is meant to have a huge career as a professional dancer, but if she stays with David, that won’t happen either. And there you have it: an organization that could have prevented the Holocaust is now putting its top people to work stopping a congressman from hooking up with a dancer.
To prove his point, Thompson magically causes Elise to injure her ankle on stage. The injury turns out not to be serious, but this scares David enough that he completely abandons Elise without another word.
Less than a year later, David finds out that Elise is going to be married. Harry Mitchell gets in touch with him again, guilt-ridden over all the horrible ways he’s had to manipulate David’s life over the years, which included causing the deaths of his father and brother. Harry offers to help David stop the wedding and be reunited with his true love.
However, they know the Adjustment Bureau will block any attempt by David to get close to Elise, so Harry teaches David how to use the powers of the Bureau to avoid detection. All he has to do is put on Harry’s trilby, and he’ll be able to walk through any door and be instantly teleported to another part of the city, always keeping one step ahead of the Bureau.
A chase ensues and David gets to Elise and convinces her to come with him, and the two scurry through doors and find themselves in a subway station, on the field at Yankee Stadium, and then at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Finally, they decide to jump to the headquarters of the Adjustment Bureau and confront the Chairman himself.
But once they get there, they’re surrounded by agents, and it looks like they’re both doomed to get the dreaded reset treatment. They share one last kiss, but suddenly everyone disappears but Thompson and Harry.
Harry explains that the Chairman has been moved by how hard they fought for their love, and the plan has been rewritten to allow them to be together. And maybe, just maybe, humanity will someday be able to write its own plan again.
The movie pays close attention to the details that make the premise believable. It was easy to see Damon as a politician, especially with the short introduction to his career that enlists the likes of Jon Stewart and other big names to make it convincing. The costume and set design are first-rate, the dance routines are all expertly choreographed, and the special effects used to make it look like a door can take the characters to a totally different part of the city are well-done and effective.
Unfortunately, the film’s underlying message is muddled at best. The movie takes on one of the biggest religious debates of all time, whether or not man can truly have free will if there’s an all-powerful creator, while also asking if having free will is really a good thing in the first place. By invoking past atrocities, the movie seems to take the stand that we humans are too stupid and evil to manage ourselves, so an agency has to watch over us to make sure we’re sticking to the right path. But at the very last moment, it suggests humanity should be allow to choose its own fate after all, even if those choices might potentially lead to the next Holocaust. This reversal feels tacked on purely to provide the requisite happy ending.
There are other concepts in the movie that don’t seem to have been completely thought out. If it’s so imperative to keep David and Elise apart at all costs, why not make one of them to move to another city, or another country? The movie introduces some gibberish about “ripple limits” to try to explain why the Bureau can’t interfere too much in human affairs, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Also, the movie is clearly setting up a big face to face meeting between David and Elise and the Chairman, but it never happens. We don’t see the Chairman at all in the movie, but various sources report that Oscar-nominated actress Shohreh Aghdashloo was originally cast to play the role. Agdashloo claims in her memoir that producers got cold feet about having “God” played by a Muslim woman, but director Nolfi insists he simply wanted to leave the Chairman’s appearance up to everyone’s personal interpretation.
The trailers and ads tried to sell The Adjustment Bureau as a fantastical, mind-blowing conspiracy tale in the vein of Dark City or The Matrix, when in reality, it’s a pretty standard-issue love story disguised as sci-fi. The whole time, you keep wondering why all these serious-looking men are expending so much effort on keeping apart two crazy kids in love. At the very least, they could have upped the ante by suggesting that when David becomes president, he prevents a nuclear war or a major terrorist attack or something. But instead, we get silly moments like Terence Stamp gravely warning our hero of a scenario where his girlfriend’s devil-may-care attitude “rubs off on you”. Anything but that!
And even then, the reason for keeping them apart doesn’t seem to be supported by what we see. David displays plenty of erratic behavior even when Elise isn’t around. It seems like she keeps him more grounded than anything else.
Overall, the script takes itself too seriously for what’s at stake. They should have just gone full-on romantic comedy with this one. It could have been like the Cabin in the Woods of rom-coms, with David and Elise experiencing all the typical clichéd romantic setbacks and chance meetings, only to realize that bored office workers were pulling the strings all along.
Unfortunately, the film ends on a bit of a preachy note thanks to the manufactured happy ending about fighting for free will. I think an alternate ending where David actually did get reset might have made more of an impression. As it is, The Adjustment Bureau is mostly just a pleasant date movie that won’t stick with you for very long after you’ve seen it. The movie kept me involved the entire time, and Damon and Blunt have chemistry to spare, but I just wish there had been more of a payoff than two people realizing they’re soulmates.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]