Movie Review: “The Adjustment Bureau”

19 Feb

When I first saw the trailer for “The Adjustment Bureau” I thought I was watching a preview of “Bourne 4.” Matt Damon was once again playing a protagonist named David…and, along with a beautiful woman, running away from what appeared to be government agents. As it turned out, I was quite mistaken. “The Adjustment Bureau” – the directorial debut of George Nolfi, screenwriter of “Ocean’s Twelve” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” – is a fast-paced, romantic action thriller with more philosophy than “Inception.” Adapted from a short story by science fiction legend Philip K. Dick, the film explores complex questions of God, fate vs. free will, and the cost of true love.

Disclaimer: This film doesn’t officially release until March 4. (I attended an advance screening.) Out of respect for the filmmakers, I’ll refrain from posting any major spoilers, but will also address the worldview-related underpinnings of the movie.

“The Adjustment Bureau” opens with a failed Senate bid from New York Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon). Shortly before delivering his concession speech, he encounters the mysterious Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), a spirited ballet dancer. Despite the instant chemistry between them, three years pass before David encounters her again. He is promptly confronted by the mysterious “Adjustment Bureau” – a secret organization of entities dedicated to ensuring that “things go according to plan.”

Harry, the particular Bureau agent assigned to David’s case, explains the situation: the members of the Bureau have been described as “angels” through the course of human history. Acting under orders from the enigmatic “Chairman” (i.e. God), the Bureau supernaturally manipulates events in order to make sure that reality conforms to the Chairman’s grand plan. David’s second encounter with Elise is NOT part of the Chairman’s plan…which means he must break off his relationship with her, or risk disrupting the continuum of destiny.

It’s a complicated premise, but one that can be reduced to two questions: in a world operating according to plan, what does it mean to exercise free will, and what will be the consequences of doing so? The Adjustment Bureau believes that humans’ free will must occasionally be subverted in order to achieve greater goals (although it is unclear whether the Chairman himself endorses this attitude). In a pivotal scene, Bureau member Thompson explains that they have attempted to relinquish control twice before: in one instance, this led to the Dark Ages; in the other, World Wars I and II and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Bureau believes that humans are not yet capable of governing themselves, and require frequent “recalibration” in order to remain stable.

The worldview of the film may best be summarized as “transitional deism” – essentially, an evolutionary progression from theism (the direct involvement of divine agents) to deism (divine agents allowing human history to proceed without intervention). While the ending of the film is somewhat ambiguous (more on that later), this idea of gradual progression is reflected throughout the movie. In some sense, this reflects both Christian and non-Christian views of man’s essential nature: while humans are basically corrupt if left to their own devices, they are capable of attaining “perfection” over the course of history (with a little help from the Bureau, of course). The movie carries a strongly existential bent as well – it affirms that meaning is found through personal choices, regardless of the morality underlying those choices.

A full discussion of these issues from a Christian standpoint inevitably revives the age-old predestination debate. Personally, I believe that free will is a necessary element of transcendent morality – but this is a complex subject beyond the scope of this review. Suffice it to say that “The Adjustment Bureau” does an excellent job of raising thought-provoking questions, but does little to answer them.

And interestingly, that is precisely the point. During a question-and-answer session with the director at the screening I attended, it became clear that Nolfi’s purpose was to raise questions, not to answer them. “The Adjustment Bureau” certainly implies some things about God, reality, and destiny…but it doesn’t truly drive any of its points home. Whereas James Cameron clearly had a strong sociopolitical motive for making “Avatar,” Nolfi seemingly has no such rationale. “The Adjustment Bureau” is more of an “exploration movie” than a “message movie” – and on that level, it excels. It deftly succeeds in provoking viewers to independent thought and analysis, while leaving many of its own questions unanswered.

This movie was polarizing among the group I went with. Some of us enjoyed it, while others disliked that the film left so much unanswered. (To be fair, the ending feels like a tacked-on Hollywood addition – I would have liked to see the original drafts of the screenplay.) Personally, I found “The Adjustment Bureau” fascinating, intense, and thought-provoking…and a welcome breath of fresh air in an increasingly action-oriented Hollywood.

Worldview elements aside, “The Adjustment Bureau” is an excellent movie. The relationship between David and Elise – the emotional touchstone of the film – is one of the best romances I’ve seen in any movie. The two leads have genuine chemistry, adding emotional resonance to an otherwise very cerebral film. The film’s few chase scenes are exhilarating, but not overpowering. Overall, it’s quite a well-crafted package.

From an objectionable-content standpoint, there are two f-words and one sensuous scene between David and Elise. Although not graphic, it’s an unfortunate inclusion that detracts from an otherwise outstanding love story. There’s plenty of tension in the movie, but virtually no violence…a throwback to a Hitchcockian era of suspense. With one scene and a few profanities deleted from the script, “The Adjustment Bureau” would easily earn a PG rating.

Should you see it? If you’re a fan of “Inception” and Alfred Hitchcock movies in general, you’ll probably like “The Adjustment Bureau.” It’s thought-provoking, romantic, and exciting…and, for the most part, devoid of major problematic elements. And while it doesn’t really answer the questions it poses, it challenges viewers to consider these issues for themselves. Definitely recommended.

A fast-paced, intellectually provocative thriller.

Normalized Score: 7.9

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Posted by on February 19, 2011 in Sci-Fi


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