The Adjustment Bureau

The hats aren’t just for show

There’s a scene in The Adjustment Bureau in which Anthony Mackie tells Matt Damon, “You know the Chairman by other names.”  I wondered, for one meteoric instant, whether this wasn’t the next Narnia film.

George Nolfi’s new flick features Matt Damon as David Norris (of no relation to Chuck, I assume, considering his political stances), a United States congressman in the running for Senator.  After losing the race due to some dirt dug up by the New York Post, he meets a barefoot wedding crasher named Elise (Emily Blunt) in the men’s restroom of a hotel.  They have a traditional Meet Cute and a premature kiss, to which Matt Damon responds in the same way I did: “Holy shit.”  Since we know this movie will eventually evolve into sci-fi thriller, it’s okay that our suspension of disbelief is tested here – perhaps even more so by the fact that we’re led to believe the New York Post has any bearing on popular thought.  They’re practically on the same level as Weekly World News these days, aren’t they?

Norris has a respectable goal: get young people to care about politics.  The opening features some interesting work with montage and visuals, including repeat appearances from Jon Stewart (as himself), who interviews Damon (as Norris) on his own show.  This is a great touch, and a good attempt at keeping things current.  In this way, we’re told at the outset that this story takes place now (at least, in 2011, it appears that way).

Soon, after another chance meeting with Elise, Norris is accosted by suited, one-note agent types, all wearing silly fedoras.  They introduce themselves as case workers for someone called the Chairman, who has written a plan for everyone’s lives.  Norris has begun to diverge from his plan, as he was never supposed to meet Elise again, and under pain of being lobotomized, he must agree never to see her again nor tell anyone about his meeting with these men.  Richardson (John Slattery) and Harry (Anthony Mackie) are assigned to keep an eye on Norris and make sure he follows these orders.

Norris, however, is already too far gone after only two meetings with Elise.  Richardson, though, is able to keep Norris away from Elise for three years, during which Norris’ political career and Elise’s dancing career have both rocketed.  They meet again by chance, and Norris somehow BS’s his way out of why he didn’t contact her for three years.  (“I was mugged” – not exactly a lie).  The Adjustment team confronts Norris again, and we soon realize Richardson and Harry are relatively low on the Adjustment food chain.  Having used up their Adjustment limits (which seems like a plot cop-out, but presumably instated to avoid severely messing up so many “plans” that there would be too much of a mess to clean up), Richardson is taken off the case and replaced by Thompson (Terence Stamp, of course), a grizzled Adjustment member whose methods are legendarily ruthless.  Harry, however, meets with Norris privately, seemingly desiring to help.

The film, as with most recent thrillers, raises more questions than it answers.  The Chairman (clearly a “God” allegory) has a plan for everyone on Earth, yet his agents operate like low-end office workers and express human emotions.  They work in small teams and have limited powers.  Norris asks, “Are you angels?”  Harry replies, “We’ve been called that.”  He also reveals that their powers revolve, in large part, around the hats (halos?) they wear.  Yeah?  God is unable to “make” more agents, unable to make them more effective, and unable to give them powers beyond funny hats and digital printouts of “plans” that resemble a complex GPS?  Kitsch aside, the story progresses in engaging ways, especially when Thompson reveals that Norris will become President and Elise a famous choreographer if the two stay away from each other.  The film focuses on their relationship, not the backfill, which is a good writing choice, but at the same time, their relationship is not deeply developed (they actually don’t spend that much time getting to know one another).

In the surprisingly exciting climax, Norris is given an Adjustment hat and granted the transportation abilities of the Chairman’s agents in order to stop Elise from marrying a generic sleazeball.  After finding her in the bathroom of the courthouse in which she is to be married, Norris blurts out the existence of the Adjustment team, and is once again hunted by Thompson, who is now accompanied by the lobotomy people.  Elise agrees to come with him on one last challenge: enter the Adjustment Bureau itself and meet the Chairman face to face in hopes of having the “plan” rewritten.

What I like about the film is that it sticks close to its characters, despite the slight lack of relationship development (I guess we’re just supposed to accept love at first sight and leave it at that).  Even when it makes the transition from political drama/romance to sci-fi thriller, we’re not beaten over the head with superpowers, cheesy technology (other than the hats) and CG battles.  In fact, violence is almost completely absent in the film.  The tip of the climax is not a fight, but a conversation.  We’re allowed to root for the Adjustment team as much as we’re nudged to root for Norris and Elise.  A few observations, however: here we have yet another film in which the woman exists merely as the object of the man’s desire – yes, her “dreams” of being a dancer are mentioned, but she’s never depicted doing anything that doesn’t involve him.  Even the Adjustment team (all male) get their own scenes and inner conflicts (and they’re not even human, for pete’s sake).  Additionally, what are we supposed to think about Elise as a person?  She’s separated from her fiancee’ and started seeing Norris.  Fine.  When he abandons her, she’s back with the other guy (generic sleazeball) after less than a year, and once again engaged to him.  Norris shows up again, and she willingly returns to him, abandoning the other guy at the altar, and doesn’t mention him again.  You have three choices: she’s either fickle and heartless,  hopelessly dependent, or all of the above.  Considering what a cool customer and independent personality she seems to be when we first meet her, this is a bit baffling.

Another question: why does Harry want to help?  Why is he so “human” compared to the other team members?  It’s (sort of) explained in that he witnessed the collapse of Norris’ father and he believes that the Chairman’s ultimate plan is for humans to become responsible enough to have free will, but I’m a bit put off by the fact that he’s the only black member of the Adjustment team, and is portrayed as somewhat lazy and incredibly rebellious.  He’s ultimately the “nice guy,” yes, but why would the Chairman allow a team member the ability to subvert his own plans so thoroughly?  These aren’t normal guys he hired for temp jobs on CapitalAreaHelpWanted; they’re angels, man!  We also don’t get answers to what happens later: the future ends up blank when love overcomes the plan, but whether Norris and Elise’s respective careers fall to pieces due to their relationship, we never find out.

Ultimately, it’s a feel-good movie, and despite its sci-fi elements, it’s a good date flick.  It’s barely worth mentioning that it’s based on a Phillip K. Dick story, because there are almost no similarities (par for the course with something in the public domain).  I’ve heard it described as a “love story,” but I’m more inclined to call it a “sci-fi story about love.”  Note the differences.  The performances are strong, Terence Stamp retains his usual typecasting, and the film manages to go from Real to Fantastic without abandoning its original story or overwhelming us with sci-fi nonsense.  If nothing else, it will make you look twice at people in funny hats.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011); written and directed by George Nolfi (based upon Phillip K. Dick’s short story, Adjustment Team); starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, John Slattery and Terence stamp.

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