Are we free to plot our own course through life? What factors might influence our choices? To what extent do you think these forces control us?
These are some of the mind-teasing questionsThe Adjustment Bureau offers up for discussion; whether or not you believe they are answered correctly will influence your enjoyment of this film directed by George Nolfi and starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt.
Rising politician David Norris (Damon) is inspired on election night by a chance meeting with a charismatic contemporary-ballet dancer named Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt). Three months later, David serendipitously boards the same bus as Elise and acquires her phone number.
When David arrives early at work, he happens upon the Adjustment Bureau hard at work “adjusting” his campaign manager’s mind. These mysterious agents chase and capture David.
In a warehouse they explain themselves, but warn that they will wipe David’s mind if he shares this information.
These men work for the elusive Chairman, who provides them with a predestined structure for the lives of certain key individuals. It is the Adjustment Bureau’s job to ensure these people do not deviate from their life plan.
Elise does not feature in David’s plan; she has her life mapped out on a different path, so the eponymous agency forbids him from seeing her again.
In spite of the grandeur of his fate, David cannot abide the thought of a future without Elise and risks everything in a bid to choose the woman he loves.
Written and directed by George Nolfi (screenwriter of Ocean’s Twelve andThe Bourne Ultimatum), The Adjustment Bureau is inspired by Philip K. Dick’s short story Adjustment Team. It centres on the question: “Do we control our destiny or do unseen forces manipulate us?”
Nolfi calls the Adjustment Bureau “an expression of a higher power” but when David asks one agent if he is an angel, he replies, “We’re more like case officers who live a lot longer than humans.”
The film proffers a complex set of rules by which The Adjustment Team members must abide:
• The agents are able to discern only the imminent choices of people within a close proximity, and water blocks this ability;
• They have access to portals that enable them to walk through a door and appear in a completely different part of the city — while they wear hats — once the hats are off they lose this ability;
• They are not usually privy to the reasoning behind each plan and they are not involved in every person’s life.
Ultimately the film feels like two stories that don’t quite gel.
Having carefully constructed this “universe” that operates just below the surface of the real world, the director has to make a choice about how and why David and Elise must become the exception to the carefully constructed rule.
The relationship between David and Elise works very well; the chemistry between Damon and Blunt palpable — scenes where they connect have genuine emotion.
But, as soon as the blokes in the grey hats turn up, the film goes into sci-fi territory that, although it (just) works, makes you want to get back to the relationship of the leads.
Not surprisingly, the film’s treatment of the challenging metaphysical issues at its heart has split critics.
Robert Ebert believes that “The Adjustment Bureau is a smart and good movie that could have been a great one if it had a little more daring.”
Variety’s Justin Chang asserts, “Questions of predestination and free will are intriguingly posed and clunkily answered.”
With precious few original ideas in cinema, this film does stand out as a thought-provoking idea that perhaps should have had more thought put into its third act.
And there is no doubt discussion about fate, free will, predestination are possible. But it’s the denouement that is the test of a really great film and it’s on that score that this one fails.
ADRIAN DRAYTON (Reviews first published in Insights magazine)