The Adjustment Bureau (2011) – Directed by George Nolfi – Starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly, and Terence Stamp.
George Nolfi’s THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (adapted from the Philip K. Dick short story “Adjustment Team”) is a prime example of how to not let the concept override the actual story. It’s also a wonderful story about the power of faith in trusting one’s own heart instead of placing one’s fate in the hands of a Higher Being who knows what’s “best” for us two-legged ants.
There is a religious or supernatural or science-fiction concept at play in THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU. David Norris (Matt Damon) learns that there men who wear hats who influence the world. There is a “Chairman” who as a “Plan” and these hat-wearing agents make certain the Plan stays on course. We never learn if the Chairman is supposed to be God or a Celestial or Steve Jobs – we just know he’s (or she’s) in charge, that he/she can take whatever form he/she chooses so most people have met him/her, and that his agents have these magical or technological books that help to show the path people are on. If someone gets off the pre-determined path in such a way that the greater Plan is threatened, these agents step in to make the corrections.
“Are you an angel?” David asks Harry (Anthony Mackie) at one point.
“We’ve been called that,” Harry replies noncommittally, and then suggest David thinks of them as caseworkers.
Now, all of this is in play throughout ADJUSTMENT. There’s several levels of caseworkers, from the caring Harry to the business-practical Richardson (John Slattery) to the hardcore Thompson (Terence Stamp). There’s the mysterious Chairman and those unexplained books, so if you’re someone who wants definitive answers, you might find ADJUSTMENT a frustrating watch.
The beauty of ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, however, is that it’s really a love story. David meets Elise (Emily Blunt) in a bathroom. He’s running for the Senate, it’s Election night, and he’s about to lose. Notecards in hand, he ducks into a really nice bathroom at the hotel and asks if anyone is in a stall. No one answers, so he starts going over his concession speech. He goes over it and over it and over it until finally Elise steps out of a stall, apologizing for not making herself known, but she didn’t expect him to take so long.
There’s an instant attraction between David and Elise, and Damon and Blunt are absolutely phenomenal together doing the Dance of the Smitten. He wants to know what she was doing in the stall and she admits she’s hiding out from security because she crashed a wedding.
“People still do that?” he asks with a huge grin.
They play give and take with each other and end up sharing a kiss, which is interrupted by Charlie (Michael Kelly), his campaign adviser. Inspired by Elise, David chucks his pre-written speech and shoots from the cuff about the silliness of the political process, admitting that his campaign spent $7,300 to determine the perfect amount of scuff to be on his shoes.
The rest of the movie is as simple as plots get – it’s about David trying to be with Elise. At first, he doesn’t have her name or number, so there’s no way to find her. Several months later, he’s about to start a job at Charlie’s capital venture firm. Richardson gives Harry an assignment that he’s got to spill coffee on David’s shirt by 7:05 AM. Harry falls asleep, misses David, and David gets on the bus to go to work. On the bus, he has a random encounter with Elise. They’re smitten with each other all over again and David gets her first name and number. Harry wakes up just as David is getting on the bus and he races after it, eventually getting hit by a taxi.
It’s a great sequence with the contrast between David and Elise’s burgeoning romance and Harry’s exasperated sprint through New York, chasing down the bus. David gets to work and promptly sees the Adjustment Bureau in action, as men in black suits and helmets have apparently frozen everyone in the office.
David has seen “behind the curtain,” if you will, and the Bureau has to figure out what to do with him. Harry was supposed to spill the coffee on David to prevent him from getting on that bus, which would have prevented him from making the meeting on time, which would have allowed the Bureau to make the changes needed to get Charlie back on the Plan. Richardson ends up telling David that they’re going to let him go, but if he ever breathes a word of this to anyone, they will reset his brain. He also tells David he can’t see Elise again. He takes the card with her number and burns it.
David spends the next three years riding the same bus every day to try and find her. Richardson makes a big deal about this when chance reconnects David and Elise, wondering “who rides the same bus every day?”
Um, most people who use the bus to get to work?
When David tries to see her, the Bureau (they don’t actually refer to themselves as the Bureau until the end; I’m just using it for shorthand) steps in to keep them apart. David is a darned determined dude, however, and keeps going after her. We get a really great, really inventive chase scene with David trying to get across town and Richardson doing everything he can to stop him – jamming phones, making it so cabs won’t pick him up, and even causing an accident.
David persists, however, and is eventually reunited with Elise. Richardson realizes he’s in over his head, so he sends the file upstairs to Thompson, who is hard enough to not be swayed by emotions. Thompson comes clean with David – if he stays with Elise, then all of her dreams will be crushed and instead of becoming a hugely famous and important dancer and then choreographer, she’ll end up teaching 6 year olds. David can’t bear to be the reason for this, so he abandons her in the hospital. The Chairman doesn’t want David and Elise together because David is destined for great things as a politician, yet if he stays with Elise, she’ll be enough for him. She’ll satisfy his need to be loved and thus won’t become President and won’t do all that good for all those people.
When David learns Elise is going to be married to her ex-boyfriend he decides he can’t stand to be without her, and with Harry’s help, launches a grand plan to get her back and take their fight right to the Chairman which leads to another great chase scene through New York.
Nolfi does an excellent job balancing these two plots but it’s the emotional foundation of the love plot that makes ADJUSTMENT BUREAU such a great film. I want David and Elise to be together, and David’s determination drives the film. The larger, philosophical questions about free will are great to think about, but they don’t dominate the movie. Instead, the movie is dominated by two people falling in love with one another and trying to make it work. When they kiss, when they hug, when they make love, when they separate … I feel all of it. That we’ve got this complicated background helps to make the film unique – both in terms of story and it’s visual style.
The ending is a bit weak as David’s rant about free will is revealed to be meaningless next to his desire for Elise (it’s very much an “I’ve got mine, everyone else can take care of themselves” moment, but it’s his desire for Elise that drives the movie, and so that’s the resolution we needed, and the resolution we got.
I won’t go so far as to say this is an all-time great movie, but I do love it for what it is – a really well told, well made love story. It’s a great conversation movie; when I was in high school and my pals and I would constantly go the movies, I loved that drive home afterwards when he talked about a film. I think ADJUSTMENT BUREAU would have made for a great conversation. The Chairman has interfered with our world because when he stepped back the first time, humanity has given itself the Dark Ages. The second time brought World War I, the Depression, and the Holocaust. Humanity, in other words, needs to be led along, but the flip of that (which David doesn’t get into because his only concern is Elise) is that humanity also rose to meet those challenges.
The idea of free will and the idea that someone is pulling our strings are both big questions (fitting into Dick’s larger trope of questioning one’s reality) but it’s the choice that David has to make that has the most power in the film: what’s the cost of love? Is it the wiser choice for two people who love each other to be together, even if the world suffers, or should they sacrifice their own desires for their future accomplishments? David is going to be President if he stays away from Elise, and she’s going to become one of the world’s most important choreographers.
Or they can be together and satisfy one another with their love and not reach those elevated heights.
What’s more important? The greater good of the world, or the greater good of two people in love?
THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU answers resoundingly that for David and Elise it’s the latter.