Ah, that pesky notion of free will. The idea that man is capable of choosing
to sin, despite also being able to choose to live in God’s grace, has perplexed religious philosophers for centuries, giving rise to interesting interpretations of Christian thought like monergism and irresistible grace. None of those philosophers are likely to find many new perspectives in The Adjustment Bureau
, which pits Matt Damon
against the forces of what might as well be called Heaven in a struggle between free will and predestination, but they will
find a genuinely engaging and occasionally touching romantic drama that’s better than the sum of its parts.
It’s interesting that science fiction has an easier time slipping philosophy into its films, at least compared with other genres, and still retain the capability to entertain. Perhaps medicine goes down better with a spoonful of sugar, and many films with a philosophical point to make, like Blade Runner
or The Matrix trilogy
, generally slip it in between dazzling special effects. The Adjustment Bureau
is a bit more mellow than those films; there’s nary a car chase or gun battle in sight, with the movie instead focusing mostly on dialogue and conversation. That’ll likely be a refreshing change of pace for most audience members, but it’s still worth noting in case you were expecting CGI-heavy action setpieces.
In what seems like it might’ve been a riff on Waking The Dead
, Matt Damon
plays David Norris, an ambitious, gregarious, but emotionally hungry young politician who badly loses a Senate election after an embarrassing photo of him hits the papers. Minutes before his concession speech, he runs across Elise ( Emily Blunt
), forms an instant and passionate connection with her, and is inspired to deviate from his talking points during his speech, electrifying his audience with his PG-13 candor about focus groups and testing 60 different kinds of ties. Writer-director George Nolfi
seems to be going for Jerry Maguire
-lite here, though he never quite pushes it to any of Cameron Crowe's
That should’ve been the last he and Elise ever saw each other, had the Adjustment Bureau anything to say about it. These fedora-topped gentlemen take an active interest in Norris’ career, guiding his progress towards the presidency with their occasionally ill-defined powers; they’re capable of freezing time, adjusting the thought processes of individuals, short-range teleportation, and most drastically, “reprogramming,” effectively lobotomizing anyone who struggles too hard against their control. After Damon accidentally learns of their existence, they level with him: he can either agree to never see Elise again, no matter how right his relationship with her feels, or he can attempt to capture a few fleeting moments of happiness before the Bureau steps in and effectively erases his brain.
Nolfi’s treatment of the Bureau agents is interesting; unlike the sinister overlords of Dark City
, the Bureau is exactly that: a bureaucracy, with agents (seemingly all with WASP-y names like Thompson, Richardson, and Donaldson) complaining about being tired, needing vacations, information being out of their pay grade, and “kicking things upstairs” when problems become too complex. They use cellphones to communicate with each other, they work in an office building, they seem to feel pain and can be knocked unconscious. They don’t seem to wish Norris any ill will; they certainly don’t enjoy punishing him or forcing him away from Elise, but that’s what’s written in the Chairman’s plan. It’s the old “I’m just doing my job” routine, but Nolfi’s insistence on humanizing the agents is a welcome break from convention. Just note that this is the kind of film that’ll drive you crazy if you have a hard time suspending disbelief, with the ambit of the Bureau’s powers being especially fuzzy around the edges.
That mostly makes up for the fact that the philosophical aspects of the screenplay are not quite
as deep as one might hope; Damon and Terence Stamp
, playing a kind of Bureau version of Winston Wolf
who comes in when things get out of hand for the rank-and-file caseworkers monitoring Norris, have some mildly interesting conversations about free will vs. predestination, but they’re mostly surface level, with Norris insisting on his desire to be with Elise and Stamp warning him of the consequences if he doesn’t stay away. It’s obviously a tricky line to follow for a film; going too deep, you wind up with things like the interminable conversation between Neo and The Architect in The Matrix Reloaded
, but it still feels as though Nolfi might’ve challenged the audience a bit more to think about the issues the film raises, rather than simply accept Norris’ heroic desire to be with Elise. It’s a bit of shame, especially considering that The Minority Report
tread on similar ground with a generally higher level of competence.
Luckily, Damon and Blunt are wonderful as a screen couple. Damon seems more genial and relaxed here than he has in a while, and Blunt manages to make Elise quite a bit more compelling than the manic pixie dream girl
her character threatens to be early on. It’s easy to believe that Damon’s willing to risk his political aspirations to be with her, and the film would fall apart were that not the case. The only problem is that the film keeps them apart for so long; we’re left wanting a few more scenes of them together. The supporting cast is terrific as well, with Anthony Mackie
good as a weary Bureau caseworker and Mad Men
’s John Slattery
playing exactly to type as a constantly exasperated Norris overseer, acting like the principal who can’t believe
this kid is in his office yet again.
Like Damon’s 2010 film Hereafter
, The Adjustment Bureau
is not quite what I expected, to its benefit. It’s not overly thought-provoking, nor is it the mindless shit-blowing-up sci-fi action movie it could’ve been in less sensitive hands. It’s more drama than thriller, despite what the trailers might lead you to believe, but that drama works well, with most of the credit due to the charm of Damon and Blunt. This isn’t a film that’s going to cause inspired debate about the merits of a Calvinistic worldview, and it settles for being a bit more of an entertainment than the more challenging Philip K Dick
adaptations, but considered alone, it’s still a solid cut above your standard blockbuster.