On the surface, The Adjustment Bureau may appear to be another sci-fi feature with a yet another group of mysterious men pulling the strings of humanity unbeknown to the puppets (us). The trailers for this film paint that kind of picture, but audiences may be surprised to find that George Nolfi’s debut film is more love story than science-fiction (either by definition or by appearance). It’s also one of the best date movies of 2011.
Based very loosely on the short story by famed sci-fi author Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly were also based on his work, though in a truer form), the story is one of destiny, planning and course of life all set against religious overtones and thoughtful questions.
David Norris (Matt Damon) has the world at his feet. A promising young Congressman running for a Senate seat in New York, David is known for his GQ looks and his late night bar fights. After a less than flattering photo captures Norris bare-cheeked, David loses his first Senate bid to his Republican adversary (of course).
Dejected, David begins to rehearse his speech to his supports in what he thinks is an empty men’s room. After many dry runs, David is a bit surprised to see Elise, a beautiful dancer, leaving one of the stalls.
Awkwardness…and true love ensues. The duo strike up a conversation as if the burgeoning couple have known each other for years. They kiss and the young congressman falls madly in love. When David’s campaign manager and BFF walk into the room, Elise runs out slightly embarrassed over the whole incident. Sadly for David, he never gets her digits.
The impact of their meeting inspires Norris to ditch his carefully prepared speech to his supporters and improvises; railing against the phoniness of politicians and how his campaign spent thousands of dollars for a consultant to tell him how much scuff he should have on his shoe (too much and it alienates bankers doctors, while too little may put off blue-collar workers) along with a focus group that choose the color of his tie.
Six months later, David takes up a position at his campaign manager’s venture capital firm in order to advance his solar energy project. On his way to his first day at work, David spots Elise on the bus and the couple start right where they left off, playfully flirting with the easiest of banter.
But that should not have happened.
A mysterious group of fedora wearing mean are watching David’s events unfold. One of the hat men, Harry (Anthony Mackie), botched an operation which should have stopped David from getting on a bus by spilling coffee on him. Harry falls asleep and never completes the operation. Chasing after him, Harry misses his opportunity and Norris accidentally walks in on Richardson (John Slattery), another hat guy who appears to be scanning his friend’s mind.
Norris, scared out of his wits, is pulled into an empty warehouse which is actually a sort of timeless limbo. He’s given the cold hard truth: a group of agents called The Adjustment Bureau are working behind the scenes to make sure everything goes to The Plan. David’s told that each person has a plan that is crafted by The Chairman, an omnipotent figure never seen in the film. The rub: David Norris can not tell a soul about what he has seen or he will be “reset,” meaning he will be stripped of personality and everything that makes David Norris, David Norris.
The agents, or “case workers” as they call themselves, then tell David that his chance meeting with Elise was not supposed to happen and they proceed to burn the card that her phone number was written on.
Fast forward three years. David, a front-runner for in the 2010 New York Senate race thanks to his off-the-cuff speech year earlier, still has Elise on his mind despite having been told by the Bureau that he will never see her again. Henry, empathic to Norris, tells him that it is futile to even try to find Elise and that the Bureau will never let him. His and her plan go different way s and that their union is out of the question.
He doesn’t listen and instead takes the same bus route everyday for three years hoping to see her again. And he does. Seeing fair Elise walking hurriedly down the street, David nearly jumps out of a moving bus to greet her. Again, it feels to them, and the audience, that their relationship never skipped a beat.
For the Adjustment Bureau, this is a growing nightmare with unlimited ramifications to multiple plans. After a run in with one of the case workers known as ‘The Hammer,” David is finally told why he and Elise and can not be together as David struggles with the reasons why.
Astute moviegoers will notice the allusions of the film’s “case workers” to that of angels early in the first act. In one scene, David bluntly asks Henry if he is an angel. “We have been called that,” he answers awkwardly. Free will and fate are eagerly discussed in the film and many faith-filled viewers will intertwine their own beliefs into that of the film. It is sure to be a hit with this market, however the theme of “my will and my plan is better than the plan mapped out by the Chairman/God” may put some off.
In an interview, director George Nolfi said that “The intention of this film is to raise questions – that’s what art should do.” This film does that masterfully, though as Chicago critic Roger Ebert put it, it could have been “a little more daring.” Nolfi’s feature plays it a bit safe as far as spiritual themes go, but if his goal was merely present a love story using quasi-sci-fi allusions mixed with spiritual ponderings, I could see how being “daring” would be a distraction.
Nolfi, who directed Damon in The Bourne Supremacy, choose his cast brilliantly. The chemistry between Damon and Emily Blunt is amazing and since movie hinges on the believability of this relationship, it succeeds. Had there been missteps between the film’s leads, The Adjustment Bureau would have crashed and burned on release.
Thankfully, it doesn’t.