George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau is clean and competently made, centered around an intriguing Philip K. Dick premise: free will does not exist, only the appearance of free will; behind the curtains, fate is enforced by an Adjustment Team.
While the film takes Dick’s premise, the plot diverges from his short story and adds an intriguing romantic angle: what if two people fall in love, but they aren’t meant to be together? In Dick’s world, the bureaucrats behind the scenes are always working to keep them apart.
This is good material, and while action or sci-fi fans will be disappointed, the romance angle pays off. Still, something doesn’t click here, and the film doesn’t really gel as it should. It’s modestly entertaining throughout, but never seems to be firing on all cylinders; by the end, what was initially compelling stuff has become unexpectedly bland and predictable.
Matt Damon stars as David Norris, a rising young politician who has just been defeated in his bid to become New York’s next Senator due to a scandalous frat house photo from his past. Before his concession speech, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt) in the men’s room. It’s love, or something like that, and the two share a quick kiss before she departs; she inspires him to give an open-hearted speech that immediately makes him the favorite for the next election.
The next morning, David unexpectedly runs into Elise on a bus; sparks fly, again. But David was never meant to be on that bus: when he arrives at his office, he witnesses men in suits conducting scans on the frozen bodies of his colleagues.
Mitchell (The Hurt Locker‘s Anthony Mackie) and Richardson (Mad Men‘s John Slattery) pull him aside and explain to him the true ways of the world: they monitor and manipulate small actions that lead to large consequences and enforce a preordained fate set by a mysterious, God-like Chairman. They agree to let him live with this knowledge (rather than “reset” him) as long as he never reveals their secrets.
One last thing: he can never see Elise again.
The rest of the film takes place some months, and then some years, in the future, as David struggles with this loss. Despite the sci-fi premise, The Adjustment Bureau plays out as a romance, with a fight against the fate – and the men who enforce it – that keeps the two lovers apart.
Damon and Blunt are effective as the young lovers, and there’s modest chemistry between them. Familiar faces – Slattery, Mackie, and Terence Stamp, who shows up later – give the Adjustment Team some depth, but they’re effectively playing bland, faceless bureaucrats, variations on The Matrix‘s Agent Smith.
A feeling of ‘good enough’ permeates The Adjustment Bureau – it’s interesting, mildly engrossing, nicely filmed – but towards the end the film becomes more generic and formulaic and we’re ultimately left unsatisfied. As science fiction or romance, it doesn’t quite reach the modest level of The Time Traveler’s Wife or Somewhere in Time. It just lacks bite – Dick’s ideas are never faithfully explored.
The film does, however, make excellent use of it’s New York City locations (the Adjustment Team teleports from door to door), which include Yankee Stadium, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Statue of Liberty.