Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau Needs Adjusting

The Adjustment Bureau

As someone who is fairly religious, the debate regarding free will versus fate is one that I constantly engage in. If humans have the free will to choose our path then why is there punishment associated with making a choice that deviates from pre-ordained plan? Conversely, if our lives are already mapped out for us, then what is the need for choice when the answer has already been assigned? Not only do these arguments contradict each other, but it also leads to the idea of a higher power being less than perfect. This is, of course, a train of thought that many would be quick to dismiss as being blasphemous. People always assume that if you ask these questions then you are lacking in faith. On the contrary, I think having these types of discussion only helps to make ones faith stronger as it helps us to see the greater spiritual picture more clearly.

This same debate consumes the science fiction love story The Adjustment Bureau, which is adapted from the Philip K. Dick short story “The Adjustment Team”. David Norris (Matt Damon) is an up-and-coming political star who is running for a Senate seat in New York. Only a few hours away from giving, what eventually becomes, the most influential speech of his career, David meets a beautiful young dancer named Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt). The pair hit it off immediately and David cannot seem to get Elise out of his head. Was their meeting merely a chance encounter? Or is she the woman David is destined to spend the rest of his life with? David accidently stumbles upon the secret Adjustment Bureau, a team of higher beings who are responsible for ensuring that everyone follows the path laid out in their life plan. One team member in particular, Harry (Anthony Mackie) has spent the bulk of his career ensuring that David stays the course up until this point. In order to avoid having his brain wiped clean, David is instructed by Richardson (John Slattery) to never see Elise again. Yet the desire to see Elise may be too strong for David to overcome.

There was a point two thirds of the way into the film when my wife leaned over and whispered to me “the movie was pretty good up until this point”. I could not even utter a response because frankly I thought the film had gone off the rails well before that moment. While I give writer-director George Nolfi credit for attempting to make a thought provoking love story, the fact that he is too afraid to take a firm stance is what ultimately ruins this film. The Adjustment Bureau spends way too much time trying to please the masses that its overall message, and logic, gets muddled.

Characters, such as Harry and Richardson, constantly remark that the “Chairman”, who is the unseen God like deity, is the one who makes the plan that everyone must follow it. Yet, Nolfi hints at the notion that maybe the “Chairman” makes mistake. Since Nolfi never wants to fully commit to the idea, the film ends up being too light to be either thought provoking or thrilling. This is most evident when looking at the character of Thompson (Terrance Stamp). The audience is given that Thompson is the harshest guy in the bureau ranks, he is the guy that gets results by any means necessary, yet he is more bark than bite. At no point does he use the advance technology that the bureau has to plant the thoughts needed to break the two lovebirds. In an earlier scene, Nolfi demonstrated that the bureau often manipulates the minds of individuals to ensure they make decisions that will positively impact someone else’s plan. Why not do the same thing here? For beings with such advances capabilities they rarely seem to know how to effectively use them. For example, there is a moment when David finds himself within the walls of the bureaus head office and proceeds to run through a good bulk of the building untouched. A few people try to tackle him but most merely stand around looking stunned.

The love story is at the core of The Adjustment Bureau is decent as Damon and Blunt have good chemistry together. Unfortunately the success of the love arc relies heavily on the central questions regarding fate and free will. If the film had been more daring in terms of taking a firm stance, this might have turned into a memorable love story. As it stands, The Adjustment Bureau wants to raise grand ideas but is too fearful to really talk about them.


  1. It's a breezy film masquerading as a sincere one, and while that's obnoxious, it's hard to hate a fun night at the movies. Good review, check out mine when you can!

  2. @Dan O – The fact that it tries to be a significant film is ultimately what actually hurts it in the end. This film should have been a sci-fi comedy because it often plays that way at times.

  3. "The Adjustment Bureau wants to raise grand ideas but is too fearful to really talk about them."

    Completely right - huge, profound ideas limited to the scope of a simplistic "he-loves-her, she-loves-him, will-they-get-together, yes-they-do" romance.

    so much potential...

  4. @Simon - I think the fact that the film had the potential to be great is what makes me so angry about the silliness of the finished product.

  5. I love your outlook (review) on the movie. I wish that George Nolfi would have went the distance and took the movie to another level to get people to really think about free will, (as I would like to put it) having the courage to follow your heart's dreams.

    Great review!

  6. @Bright Light – Nolfi played it way too safe. Like you mentioned, he could have really gotten people thinking about what is important (i.e. following your heart’s desire) in a more profound way had he just went for it. Instead, he kept on worrying about the mainstream box-office which ultimately hurt the film.

  7. The first thing I can say is that The Adjustemente Bureau is a rare film. It starts as a thriller about an aspiring U.S. senator, only to be a courageous commitment to science fiction, when in reality it is a love story. A fantastic modern reissue requited love, but impossible to divine.
    When production starts to become a science fiction story is a bit messy and a bit mislead some characters, but once you become more or less with the leitmotif of the hat brigade, tension arises an intense thriller.
    The final resolution is a little bluff, a little fairy tale, a little Disney

  8. @Noelia - The whole film feels like a Disney fairy tale striving to be something more but failing miserably. The film would have been better had it not included such big philosophical questions. The minute you go that route, especially in the fashion the film does, you should be prepared to really dive into the issue.


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