A film review by Craig J. Koban March 9, 2011


2011, PG-13, 105 mins.


David Morris: Matt Damon / Elise Sellas: Emily Blunt / Harry: Anthony Mackie / Richardson: John Slattery / Charlie: Michael Kelly / Thompson: Terence Stamp

Directed and written by George Nolfi, based on the short story “Adjustment Team” by Philip K. Dick.

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is one of those low key, performance and idea driven sci-fi films that’s more compelled to command our thoughtful interest first and dazzle us with eye candy a distant second.  In an age when we are barraged with sci-fi that’s laden with CGI trickery and action mayhem to the point of head spinning abstraction, it’s refreshing to see THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU hone in on its more meditative elements. 

Of course, the central theme of the film – which in itself is not that wholly original – is an ageless and recurrently focused on one for the genre: the nature of reality, our perception of it, and what we see as real and unreal.  It’s of no surprise that the film is based on the 1954 short-story THE ADJUSTMENT TEAM by Philip K. Dick, one of the seminal sci-fi writers of the last century and one who has had many of his literary works made into watershed sci-fi films (BLADE RUNNER, TOTAL RECALL, MINORITY REPORT, and A SCANNER DARKLY, to name a few).  The original source material was more a product and socio-cultural commentary of the Cold War-era it was released in, so it’s clear that the silver screen adaptation has taken several liberties with it (to call it a loose adaptation would not be unwarranted).  Yet, writer director George Nolfi – making his directorial debut after spending time penning scripts for films like TIMELINE, THE SENTINEL, and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM – has remained true to the essence of Dick’s work.   

The film involves an ambitious, forthright, and honest politician (that sounds like pure science fiction right there!) named David Norris (the always headstrong and dependable Matt Damon) that is running for a U.S. Senate seat in his home state of New York.  He’s likeable, handsome, and has a way of communicating ideals to his followers to ensure that they implicitly trust him, but he has a few minor, but widely publicized indiscretions from his college past creep up on him, which forces him to lose the election.  Just before he is about to give his concession speech he crosses paths with a ballerina named Elise Sellas (the ravishing Emily Blunt) and after the two engage in some flirtatious banter, they lock eyes and kiss, after which Elise quickly leaves the congressman.  With any two other actors their spontaneous moment of heated passion would have felt falsely contrived, but Damon and Blunt have such a credible rapport and chemistry together that you don’t doubt the credence of the moment. 

Three years pass and David begins another bid for higher political office, but he can’t keep Elise out of his mind (he has not seen her since their first encounter).  He does, however, meet up with her again on a city bus and their ethereal attraction to one another is reborn.  It is at this point where the story takes a radical detour: By accident, David has come across a mysterious team of “observers” that look like rejected extras from TV’s MAD MEN, led by one of that show’s alumni, John Slattery (in a cool, calm, and chillingly focused performance) while they are in action.   

They apprehend David and take him to an undisclosed location where they reveal their secrets: they are people - if you can call them such - that watch over every human being’s path or destiny on Earth.  However, because of some factors – chance being one of them – a person’s fate sometimes strays away from the correct path that the group’s leader (called The Chairman) sees for them, which is where the adjusters come in.  These caseworkers swoop in and intervene with people and change their fate trajectories so that they go back to the path set for them.  Almost all of the time, these adjusters do their work in secret, but a few rare times they are spotted in action.  David is one of those rare ones that catch them.   

They give the befuddled David a series of ultimatums: Firstly, if he ever tells anyone about their existence, then he will be found and “reset” (basically lobotomized).  Secondly, he cannot ever see or engage with Elise again, seeing as a relationship with her will have dire consequences on both of their lives.  At first, David heeds their warnings, but he still finds himself uncontrollably drawn to the woman he loves.  Slowly, he begins to learn how to evade The Adjustment Bureau’s attempts at auditing his fate back to the right path, and he becomes such a thorn in the bureau’s side that The Chairman brings in his number one right hand man, “The Hammer” (Terrance Stamp, an actor whose icy and detached gaze and softly intimidating inflections works wonders here) to stop David once and for all. 

Part of the success of the film comes from the performances, and if they didn’t click then the arc of the narrative would never work.  Damon – a performer that, with age, has become physically pudgier, but more unreserved and confident with his range and abilities - makes his congressman one with a quiet charisma and compassion.  Blunt – limitlessly attractive, amusing, and lively - makes for an effective romantic companion to Damon and the two are able to generate palpable heat and chemistry together.  We intuitively believe that they love each other and would go to any length to see their love through: grounded and authentic performers allow for the innate preposterousness of the film to sort of obscure itself.

Again, the essential premise of the film is endlessly intriguing, not to mention that it deals with a metaphysical debate that has challenged religious and atheist schools of thought for all time: free will versus destiny or predestination.  THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU reminded me considerable of THE MATRIX films for how it tempts and teases audiences to ponder the nature of its reality (or pseudo reality).  Both films involve characters that believe their primary plane of existence is tidy and controlled by their choices, but ultimately it is revealed to them that choice and free will is just a presumption and that forces bigger than them actually push all of the buttons.

Yet, for as involved as I was in THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU’S ideas, I was left asking far too many questions.  Upon even modest scrutiny, the whole concept of the adjusters is riddled with many loopholes.  If the adjusters can be anywhere they want at any time and have the omnipotent abilities to constantly adjust peoples’ destinies, then how could chance possibly be allowed in to the equation?  Why would this all-powerful bureau – minutely meticulous on a details front – ever allow for chance to take people off the right path?  If the bureau has a plan for you, then you have no choice or free will, right?   There can’t be any room for human error or changes of heart when it comes to predestination. 

Then there are the religious implications of the story that the makers seem intimidated by.  There is not one point in the film when David asks one simple question: Is The Chairman actually God?  Moreover, the film skirts around one of the central foibles, I believe, in the argument about God and free will: people of faith attest that God allows for free will, which explains evil, for instance, in the world, but they also expound on the notion that God has a plan for everyone.  Huh?  Doesn't a plan by a higher power override your free will?  In essence, doesn’t the fact that The Chairman - in the film’s universe – has complete control over your life mean that chance can’t possible exist?  Yet, in this story, it does.  I’ve got a headache.

I guess that if you don’t pore over these inherent ambiguities in the ADJUSTMENT BUREAU’s premise, then you’ll most likely come out of it entertained, as I mostly was.  I guess that I just wished that the adjusters were not as hazily developed and the details around them were not as equally puzzling.  The film’s conclusion and climax also is largely unsatisfying, especially if you consider how strongly the story intellectually engages us half way through.  I think that the optimistically maudlin ending is off-center with the darker underpinnings of the premise.  Alas, I give THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU a semi-half-hearted three star review…with reservations.  I appreciated its performances, its lack of technological artifice (hard to find in today’s sci-fi genre) and its willingness to be primarily about its people and ideas.  It just could have been a great, masterful sci-fi entry with some, how shall I say it, necessary adjustments. 

  H O M E