It should be obvious to any literate person that The Adjustment Bureau was based on a Philip K. Dick story. The premise and its execution deal quite heavily with such themes as paranoia, delusion, the subjective nature of reality, rebellion against an overbearing authority, free will and the dilemma of head vs. heart. All we need is some drug abuse and we’d have the whole set!
This is the story of David Norris, the youngest man ever elected into Congress. He’s got quite a wild streak and a criminal history of drunken misconduct, but he’s incredibly charismatic and highly motivated to make a difference. We first meet Representative Norris during his run for Senate (which, I might add, was peppered with a surprising amount of cameos from some notable VIPs to lend credibility), though Norris ultimately loses. While writing his concession speech, David has a chance encounter with the beautiful Elise Sellas. They hit it off immediately, though David is left without any way of contacting her.
A month later, David meets Elise in another chance encounter and their romance quickly blossoms. Unfortunately, this meeting was never supposed to happen. David has just run afoul of The Adjustment Bureau, a group of enigmatic men who use their strange powers to keep things according to The Plan. They’re pissed off because David was supposed to stick to his path without ever meeting Elise again and this new romance somehow throws a wrench in The Plan. David’s pissed off because he doesn’t like the idea of anyone telling him what he can’t do, because no one will tell him who wrote The Plan or why it’s apparently so fragile, and because he wants to be with Elise.
Right off the bat, it should be obvious that this premise hinges entirely on the David/Elise romance. If either of these characters are remotely unlikable or if they can’t sell their mutual attraction, the whole movie falls apart. Not to worry.
David is played by Matt Damon, and he’s… well, he’s Matt Damon. There’s no denying that the guy is on a hot streak right now, choosing his parts very carefully and singlehandedly elevating the past few movies he’s been in. If he keeps this up, I give it a year or two before he finds the role that gets him an Oscar, or at least a nomination. Emily Blunt plays opposite him, wiping away the grime left over from her last three movies (Gnomeo and Juliet, Gulliver’s Travels and The Wolfman) in a single stroke. Blunt really earns her keep in this movie, playing a charming and energetic beauty.
Damon plays a stubborn rascal with a chip on his shoulder. Blunt plays a devil-may-care firecracker full of passion. Individually, they’re sympathetic and fun to watch. Together, their chemistry is smoldering. The love between these two characters is perfectly sold and I cannot possibly understate how central that was to this film. Likewise, I can’t begin to describe how hard it must be to portray love at first sight without making it seem phony or trite, yet the cast and crew somehow managed it. Phenomenal.
Then we have the Bureau. These guys appear to be a monolithic and omnipresent entity, yet the individual agents are very different. Take John Slattery’s character, for example: This guy has amazing powers to manipulate the world, yet he goes about it as if the whole thing was just another desk job. He works for a high power known only as “The Chairman” (heavily implied to be God Himself), blindly following His Plan, but does so without knowledge of what The Plan is. He uses his authority as an excuse to do his work while using his boss as an excuse for why he has to do it. In short, this powerful and mysterious man is really nothing more than common bureaucrat. And for the most part, the other Bureau agents are cast in this same mold. It’s a fascinating line to tread and the movie walks it admirably.
On a totally different note, there’s Harry Mitchell, played by Anthony Mackie (remember him from The Hurt Locker?). This guy is a bureaucrat who actually sympathizes with David, sticking his neck out to explain the Bureau and help resist them. As much as I understand the movie’s need for an opening into the Bureau’s world and a means of expositing this movie’s rules, I found myself unclear as to Harry’s motivations. I couldn’t understand why Harry would side with a mortal and defy the Bureau, especially when Harry knows what’s at stake and what the Bureau is really capable of. What’s more, an “inside man” greatly injures the metaphor of the Bureau as a homogenous and impenetrable authority that can never be questioned or escaped from. Still, at least the script makes an effort to gloss over this plot deficiency and Mackie is more than charismatic enough to see his character through.
On the other end of the spectrum, there sits Thompson. Terence Stamp’s performance here is awe-inspiring as the Bureau’s champion agent. He presents David with some of the movie’s toughest dilemmas, mercilessly defending The Plan and putting our hero’s heart through the wringer, all while acting (and perhaps truly believing) that he’s working for everyone’s benefit. One mention from the other characters or a single look from Stamp is enough to effectively sell the bureaucrat as a formidable opponent.
There are so many great questions and conflicts at the heart of this movie. Who wrote The Plan and to what purpose? Is The Plan really infallible? Why do David and Elise love each other so intensely if it goes against The Plan? Is giving up that kind of love worth claiming opportunities that most people would die for? The movie deals with all of these questions and so many more, all with a great level of depth.
Still, there are some nits to pick with the screenplay. The dialogue has a couple of clunkers here and there, though the cast is mostly good enough to salvage them. The bureaucrats have a few rules that don’t make any sense (apparently, the Chairman decided to put limits on their powers just for kicks), but at least the rules are consistent and effectively used. The action scenes could have been distributed more evenly, yet the performances and the thematic ruminations are more than enough to keep the movie captivating during the quieter moments. The film ends with something of a deus ex machina, but expecting anything else of a premise like this would probably be foolish. And anyway, for whatever failings the ending had, at least it tied up all the movie’s moral through-lines in an elegant bow.
Visually, the movie is quite good. I’ll grant that the color scheme is rather drab, but the cinematography and editing are wonderful. The special effects are amazing in their subtlety and seamless presentation. Perhaps best of all — since David operates by improvising and breaking rules while the bureaucrats operate by using their powers to bend reality — this movie has some truly kickass chase sequences.
The Adjustment Bureau is a phenomenal movie. The writing has a few minor flaws, the lighting is often dull and the score leaves a lot to be desired, but the acting is wonderful across the board and the story’s ample potential is explored to its fullest extent. It’s a fun and energetic movie that also tugs at the heartstrings while providing a ton of food for thought. See this one at your earliest opportunity.