When I saw the trailer for this latest Phillip K. Dick adaptation, I was intrigued, but mostly disappointed. To see the film squander its high-minded concepts of fate, free will, and strangers in suits in the service of what seemed to be just another “us against the world” romance seemed like a profound waste of time. We see Matt Damon, an able presence in any film, once again showcasing his four-minute mile, this time with an out-of-breath Emily Blunt in tow, and the film seemed like little more than a chase thriller saddled with superficial overtones of meant-to-be amour.
It’s the story of New York State Congressman David Morris (Damon), who meets the girl of his dreams in ballet dancer Elise (Blunt), but never gets her last name or phone number. The besuited members of the Adjustment Bureau, guardians of fate the world over, go out of their way to ensure that the two never meet again. And why? Because “the Plan” says they’re not supposed to be together. But when Adjuster Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) dozes off on the job, the two star-crossed lovers meet and form an instant and irrevocable attraction, prompting higher-ups Richardson (Mad Men‘s John Slattery) and Thompson (Terence Stamp) to come in and set the world back on track.
David’s inadvertant glimpse at the Adjusters in action has cosmic consequences, leading to a multitude of lengthy deliberations about fate and free-will. These discussions are probably where Dick and Nolfi’s carefully-crafted dialogue is at its strongest, striking just the right balance between existential technobabble (“We’re seeing some shifting confluence tides!”) and adept worldbuilding. In addition to the discussions, there are plenty of foot-chases wherein the Adjusters show off their uncanny ability to flit between any two locations via doorways. This is a mechanic we’ve seen before, in both Pixar’s Monster’s, Inc, as well as The Matrix Reloaded. I regret to invoke that first Matrix sequel, but The Adjustment Bureau feels in many ways like a spiritual successor to that film. It has a similarly controlled and constructed reality (complete with its very own Agents), but unlike Reloaded, manages to philosophize without becoming overly self-indulgent. The foot-chases increased in length and complexity, and I actually found myself getting bored with them as the film went on. Its parallels to Reloaded became so striking at this point that I thought the only way the film could end was with David and Elise pleading their romantic case in front of the Architect (or “The Chairman”, as he’s known in this film).
I won’t spoil how the film ends, but I will say I found it mildly satisfying. It was a brave choice to focus on such a seemingly conventional romance (and give us not one, but three meet-cute scenes), but the undeniable chemistry between Damon and Blunt managed to justify it even as each leap forward in time made it less and less coherent. Blunt’s performance is striking, but her character exists as little more than an object of beauty and desire, her appeal explained solely as a product of her masterful skill in the art of ballet. Damon, meanwhile, is given a great deal more to work with as a would-be politician as well as a romantic. He delivers a speech that the film’s fictitious journalists rightfully refer to as “electrifying”, and has a number of fantastic scenes debating fate and free-will with the always enjoyable Terence Stamp. If the film’s romance offers one great disappointment, it’s that Elise is never given any say in the matter- indeed, she’s never even given a chance to understand what’s going on, and pays a great emotional price for it. While David knows he’s risking his life and defying his fate to be with her, Elise is simply caught in an on-again, off-again romance with an unreliable politician, and comes along for the ride simply because it feels right.
The romance aside, the film’s most fascinating character might just be Harry (Mackie), the Adjuster who’s had just about enough of manipulating people’s lives. Mackie gives an adeptly understated performance. Even as he delivers the bulk of the film’s exposition, he remains aloof and otherworldly while clearly feeling a measure of compassion for the people he’s manipulating.
In the end, The Adjustment Bureau is an adept rendition of unoriginal ideas, and that might just make it worth watching. Its grand questions about fate vs. free will are doled out at about the right pace – just as I began to wonder how the present world (or indeed, the past century) can be explained as a delicate web of clockwork predestination, the film offered what can at least be deemed a plausible excuse. In this world, God (or “The Chairman”) appears to be quite fallible, or at least willing to indulge in the kind of experimentation that inadvertently brings about the Dark Ages or the Holocaust. The film sidesteps the contradiction between omnipotence and omnibenevolence by never quite presuming either. The Adjusters aren’t all-seeing or all-knowing (despite their frequent claims to the contrary), and film’s resulting deity is neither a hands-off Deist type nor an ever-present micromanager that makes everyone’s dreams come true. The Bureau’s specific interest in David is never quite explained, but any success he might achieve will come at a significant personal cost.
FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10