A film review by Craig J. Koban March 9, 2011
THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU
2011, PG-13, 105 mins.
2011, PG-13, 105 mins.
David Morris: Matt
Elise Sellas: Emily Blunt /
Richardson: John Slattery /
Charlie: Michael Kelly /
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
I’ve got a
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.