'The Adjustment Bureau' Movie Review: A Wild God Chase That Trips On The Details

The Adjustment Bureau looks at first like a thriller/romance hybrid; consider an alternate reality version of The Tourist, perhaps. But this film is not preoccupied with beauty; rather it contemplates the conflict between free will and predestination. That simple, eternal question becomes a sort of science fiction — something closer to theological fiction, really — when you factor in the Bureau, an organization that sees to it that mere mortals consistently adhere to 'the plan.'

Numerous release delays and more than a small amount of re-editing left us wondering if this movie, the directorial debut from screenwriter George Nolfi, might be a total disaster. In fact, The Adjustment Bureau is an effective, even captivating romantic chase film with a meditative core worth considering. That is, until it bursts its own bubble with explanations. Still, the questions posed linger even after the film offers a too-pat resolution.

Matt Damon is David Norris, a charismatic and ambitious New York congressman angling for a Senate seat. Shortly before the election a less than flattering photo is released to the press — evidence of one of several bad decisions in David's life — and he bombs on election night. But there is a consolation prize: minutes before giving his concession speech he meets the gorgeous and plain-spoken Elise (Emily Blunt).

Their brief encounter gives David a new career perspective even as it leaves him pining for Elise. Years later they reconnect by chance — or is it really chance? Their meeting happens in part because Harry (Anthony Mackie), a nattily dressed gentleman, fails in his assignment to 'nudge' David along a specific path.

Harry is part of the Bureau, an organization that is essentially God's bureaucracy, or something a lot like it. Agents carry rather silly notebooks (influenced by Paul Auster's City of Glass, perhaps?) in which the paths of their subjects are represented by complex intersections of ever-shifting lines. Agents can occasionally push their subjects towards or away from a given decision point. Harry is assigned to do so for David — the politician is meant to become something much more, but he needs a nudge to stay on the proper path.

Harry seemingly fails at his task, which was the first small captivating point of the film. While the bureau guys are evidently powerful, old, and something other than human, they are also fallible.Absolute power is boring, but the fact of the agents' limitations in addition to their extra-human status makes them interesting for a time.

Also good: we soon learn that some big life decisions are definitively 'either/or' prospects. For example, you can have your dreams, or the girl of your dreams, but not both. It's a pretty hardcore look at life, but also one that is fairly honest, and I responded well to it. Anyone with a little experience knows you can't ever have everything, and this movie initially sums that perspective up in a trim and entertaining package.

Mr. Nolfi's script, based on the Philip K. Dick short story 'The Adjustment Team,' features two acrobatic acts in which the story somersaults from the basic romantic setup through a clever sequence in which the bureau attempts to prevent David from reconnecting with Elise and then into more heady plot points during which David learns of the possible consequences of his life decisions.

[Note: the following three paragraphs contain possible spoilers for the film. Skip ahead to after the next bracketed note to read my final thoughts.]

Though the 'Bureau = Heaven' conceit isn't exactly unusual, it, too, works well, especially when one operative, The Hammer (Terence Stamp) is brought in for some damage control. The character is a rather classic agent in the Lucifer mold. He's said to be a 'former field agent,' which is quite telling if the basic Bureau guys are more or less angels. The name 'The Hammer' suggests violence, but the character's best weapon is doubt. I enjoyed pondering questions about his intent and honesty, and the intent of other agents (did Harry 'fail' on purpose?), especially because the deep mechanics of how they go about their work are mostly obscured.

Until the mechanics suddenly aren't obscured. There comes a point where the film kicks into a much more obvious mode and David learns how a couple of the bureau's big tricks work. Suddenly the sci-fi exposition piles up — rules about doors and bureau behavior — and what was interesting by virtue of mystery quickly becomes rather silly.

The film threatens to collapse not only under the weight of all the expository detail, but also due to what is left out. We know a lot, which just leaves far more questions. 'The plan' that the bureau enforces is capricious and subject to change — why is that? Why are the abilities of Bureau operatives so specifically grounded in stuff? Why doesn't Richardson (John Slattery), the chief operative chasing David, have a video game HUD to show the audience how much 'nudge' power he has left? That last one is a joke, but also indicates the degree to which the film is sometimes preoccupied with details that don't really matter.

[End possible spoilers.]

The performances are convincing — I enjoyed all of the key cast members quite a bit, and found the role of David well-suited to Matt Damon's particular persona as a sort of 'everyman plus a little something extra.' Emily Blunt is exceptionally charming, John Slattery and Anthony Mackie exude the tired energy of overworked officers, and Terence Stamp channels a bit of The Limey to make his scenes work.

If the film had been able or willing to maintain the almost hard-line sci-fi theology it sets out in the first two acts, where decisions really can be damaging and the bureau remained more mysterious, The Adjustment Bureau might have held my imagination more in thrall. By giving away a great many secrets and serving up a pat ending it drifts too far from that core and squanders the power built up as David wrestles with the explicit understanding he is given about his life decisions.

/Film score: 6.5