What if Fate was a literal army of humourless bureaucrats shoving people in whatever chosen direction they’re supposed to go in? What if God was a disinterested dilettante sketching people’s lives out in ledger books and then changing the course for arbitrary reasons? The Adjustment Bureau asks these questions, and yet refuses to answer them with a curious blend of imagination and moral and intellectual cowardice that incidentally speaks a lot about certain aspects of the contemporary
Hollywood mindset. After George Clooney gave a leg-up to one major hand in the Jason Bourne franchise, Tony Gilroy, with Michael Clayton (2007), here Matt Damon aids another, George Nolfi, who attempts to blend the theme of the man on the outside beset by existential forces of oppression, with more fantastic, overtly conceptual arabesques. The result is both engaging and finally galling. Damon plays David Norris, a wunderkind politician, who, having served as the youngest Congressman in history, is trying to graduate to the senate, but his charge is fatally stalled by a “scandal” where he’s photographed mooning his college chums at a reunion. The notion this is shocking enough to derail a serious senatorial campaign is perhaps the most genuinely alternate-reality touch in the film. Anyway, on the night of his crushing loss, he encounters a charmingly disingenuous, almost anarchic, yet still roaring hot young woman, Elise (Emily Blunt), in a men’s bathroom in the Waldorf, where she’s hiding out for security after crashing a wedding for the hell of it. She inspires David to give an off-the-cuff concession speech mocking the pretensions of his campaign, effective enough to reinvigorate his chances for his next bid.
In the meantime he takes a job with the investment firm run by his friend Charlie Traynor (Michael Kelly). Getting on the bus for his first day, David meets Elise again, and meanwhile a mysterious hatted shadow, Mitchell (Anthony Mackie), who tries with difficulty to arrange a seemingly random chain of events that will separate the couple again. He fails, and David not only gains Elise’s phone number, but arrives at his office early enough to find a horde of more mysterious, hatted goons, who seem to have stopped time within the confines of the office block and who, perturbed at his presence, chase down David and browbeat him into never revealing their existence. As per the exposition speeches of Richardson (an amusing John Slattery, balancing businesslike cool with increasing exasperation) and Thompson (a wasted Terence Stamp), David learns their Bureau is charged as agents of order and direction in the human world, through their endless employment of tiny strokes of chance and action to result in desired outcomes, and that he and Elise have to be kept apart if both are to fulfil their missions to become President and world’s greatest choreographer, respectively. The catch, which they can’t divulge: the couple were supposed to be together in several earlier plans for them, and they’re still responding to those implanted cues, and the battle becomes one that pits David’s improvisatory zeal against the Bureau’s omnipotent yet curiously unimaginative power.
If, like Peter Venkman, call it luck, call it fate, call it karma, you believe that everything happens for a reason, then The Adjustment Bureau might seem slightly more substantial than an ungainly blend of paranoid they’re-out-to-get-me conspiracy thriller, romantic chase melodrama, and soul-searching meta-drama elucidating the way coincidence, character, and metaphysics might all work in sometimes contradictory ways. It’s based on a Philip K. Dick story, sporting some classic Dickian ideas, but the result falls far short of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) as an attempt to make mainstream thriller stuff out of Dick’s inherently asocial material. To its credit, The Adjustment Bureau tries to take its inherently silly premise and the characters in it with a degree of sobriety. The visual palette employs art-deco architecture and a retro ‘50s man-in-the-grey-flannel-suit look for the Bureau men, and a look for their goons that recalls the security thugs of Fahrenheit 451 (1967), seeming to promise a noir-styled sci-fi swashbuckler that never eventuates. Damon and Blunt are highly engaging to watch play off each other, and like last year’s even worse Hereafter, the greater part of the pleasure it offers is in watching Damon interact with his leading lady: no-one will ever cast Damon in a romantic comedy because of his air of eternal self-seriousness and plebeian good-looks, which is pity. But the film fails not only in not placing convincing impediments in the way of his political ascent, but in the initial task of making David seem genuinely like a guy who’s consistently undone by his weaknesses and immaturities. Damon plays him right from the start as a stolidly likeable idealist, albeit with a hint of necessary melancholia for a man defined by the early loss of his parents, giving him an insatiable need for attention that the Bureau has fostered in him, and which they fear Elise will ease. For a film that’s about the capacity of the individual to avoid conformity to pre-ordained structures, it’s remarkably conventional in and of itself.
The most curious thing about Nolfi’s film is how it manages to take a bunch of potentially fascinating ideas and images and process them into a mild, mushy, gutless love-conquers-all melodrama. The story material invokes multiple strands in Christian and secular humanist philosophy, questioning the limits of free will in the face of chance and forces that might be perceived and comprehended but never entirely overcome, and yet represents them in a lazy, indecisive way. The film is driven along by the hero’s resistance, and yet in the end everyone smiles and goes on their way, in a safely bland, non-committal wrap-up that strains to avoid painting the heavenly operatives as too villainous, whilst still satisfying our desire to see the heroes validated as good self-motivating individualists. The smell of unprocessed contemporary cultural ephemera hangs around this film, but it’s impossible to quite pin down because it’s playing both sides and corners of the fence. The Adjustment Bureau hovers uncertainly for much of its length, waiting for a good solid shove of authorial invention that might either make it an affecting It’s A Wonderful Life-esque fantasy that metaphorically elucidates the primal pleasures and terrors inherent in being an individual human at the mercy of society and time, or a disastrous high-concept train wreck. It never really achieves either status, however, delivering an incredibly weak ending as the heroes are let off the hook by the under-defined Chairman, who might be God, or Rupert Murdoch, or the Great Gazoo. The narrative raises one particularly interesting stake for its drama, in explicating the ways in which ambition and affection compromise many a life, particularly women’s: Thompson browbeats David with the factoid that Elise will finish up teaching dance to eight-year-olds rather than becoming a world-famous, art-form-rejuvenating star if she hooks up with him. It’s made clear that David’s been chosen as an agent of Fate to save the world from global warming or something, but I couldn’t help but feel the film could have been more urgent, say, if the hero was an unemployed welder in New Jersey, or an evicted single mother, you know, people who might have some more pointedly immediate reason to take issue with Fate’s bureaucrats, but then that might raise the eternally verboten spectre of class conflict. Also, there are more than enough politicians in the world who think they’ve been pushed to become Important People by higher powers; do we really need a film validating that?
Tension and amusement does build in David’s war of devices with
, and the concept of a world run by creepy guys in suits with portals between realities, usually rendered in safely generic terms a la The Matrix but here adopting a veneer of fuzzy pseudo-religious fable, is well-visualised. Nolfi handles the shift in locale that the Bureau’s agents can use, with doors into broom closets that open in Yankee Stadium and so forth, with some fluidity and sense of staging. But he seems to totally lack any capacity to develop an enveloping atmosphere of oppression and eerie permeability. The threat of the Bureau never seems all that convincing, especially when Mitchell, who for his own ends, possibly related to disgust at the killing of David’s parents to spark his career (although this is only hinted; the dark side of the Bureau’s activities is only properly signalled by their warnings for David if he breaks their rules), gives aid and advice to the rebel lovers. Any real sense of what The Adjustment Bureau wants to accomplish is missing, the action is finally vapid, thanks to the excessive literalness of Nolfi’s sub-Inception reality bending and special effects, and a tonal indecision. Fortunately, performances buoy this exercise, with Damon, Stamp, and Slattery doing effective variations on their most familiar roles, and Blunt and Mackie, in spite of their clichéd roles as naughty art chick and magical Negro helpmate, imbue their parts with spry solidity. Richardson