The Adjustment Bureau: Stylish, thoughtful, clever and full of holes

7 Mar

The Adjustment Bureau is a fine, fun movie that’s a good place to start a conversation about free will, fate, “God’s plan for my life,” and all that. But it’s not a good place to finish that conversation. Go see this movie — it could make for a smarter-than-usual date flick — but do not let it change your theology, cosmology. psychology or any other -ology.

The Adjustment Bureau, based on an old story by  legendary sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, stars Matt Damon as David Norris, a talented, up-and-coming New York politician who meets and falls in love with Elise Sellas, a talented, up-and-coming modern dancer played by Emily Blunt. But they’re not supposed to be together, according to a cosmic plan sketched out by a godlike “Chairman.”

We never see the Chairman, but we are introduced to members of the Adjustment Bureau — supernatural “case officers” dressed in 60s-style suits, overcoats and fedoras who monitor people’s comings and goings and, if necessary, perform incremental “adjustments” to make sure the humans stay on their life plans. John Slattery  (AMC’s “Mad Men”), Anthony Mackie (“The Hurt Locker”) and Terence Stamp are the main “bureaucrats” working on the David-Elise case.

The Adjustment Bureau could have either veered off into silliness or into a cinematic slog through existential philosophy. To the film’s credit, it does neither: We get to enjoy a very human story while playing mind games with what it all means.  Damon and Blunt make the movie click: they have great on-screen chemistry. (Note to casting directors: Return to this pairing, but not too often. Please don’t make them a cliché.) The movie finished second in the box office during its opening weekend.

The ideas behind the story derive not from just a good question, but some of the great questions that have inspired and haunted humans for ages, from the 4,600-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh (perhaps the world’s oldest written story) to meditations on the Nazi Holocaust. How much of life is controlled by fate, by God? Do humans have free will? Is there anything such as pure, random chance?

This is like native soil for director and screenwriter George Nolfi, who carries both an enviable box-office record (Ocean’s Eleven, The Bourne Ultimatum) and a notable educational pedigree: After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton (public policy), he did graduate work in philosophy at Oxford and in political science at UCLA.

No surprise, then, that he’s given us a movie that’s not only stylish, clever and often slyly humorous. (Metaphysical case workers doze on the job, misunderstand the boss and must deal with staff shortages — some truths really are universal.) It’s thoughtful and thought-provoking too.

Still, I felt frustrated at several points. For instance, Nolfi seems to lump all concepts of god and/or fate together, without any nuance: ancient Greek myth, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, pantheist … it all comes out in the wash. I don’t know his personal religious views, but his movie’s concept of a deity was like an Impressionist painting: interesting and engaging when considered from a distance, but fairly muddy when viewed up close.

As enjoyable as The Adjustment Bureau is (yes, I’d watch it again), it won’t take long during a post-movie chat to start poking holes in the movie’s “universe.” That random events seem to happen isn’t the problem: that’s one of the movie’s central questions. But there are also points of incoherence that aren’t satisfactorily covered by the “laws” of the story. What was Elise’s motivation at a key point in the story? What was the “fate” of one of the agents who bent the rules? Is a very good, really long kiss actually that powerful? (I’m trying not to give away any spoilers.)

And where can I get a hat like that?

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2 Responses to “The Adjustment Bureau: Stylish, thoughtful, clever and full of holes”

  1. sundaymorning March 7, 2011 at 11:41 am #

    It sounds like another take on quantum mechanics, a la The Matrix, except clumsier. The notion that any particular glitch in evolution would throw the universe is pretty nebulous. The universe seems to handle chaos just fine, and apparently God is considerably more elegant at finessing things than The Adjustment Bureau.

  2. JLH March 16, 2011 at 6:10 pm #

    This makes me want to see it. Does it have any similarities to Minority Report? (Also flawed, but some teachable stuff). And how bad can it be if the solutions seem to center on a good hat and kissing. What more could a girl want?! 😉

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