Frank Capra and Philip K. Dick make strange bedfellows, but George Nolfi nevertheless tries to see what would happen if they mated in The Adjustment Bureau. Loosely based on a Dick short story (even the title has been changed from The Adjustment Team, which actually sounds more like a 2011 title), the film melds existential musings on the nature of fate and free will, light paranoia and a love conquers all theme into something not at all unpleasant.
Matt Damon plays Good Will Hunting Goes Obama - a rough and tumble straight shooting politician whose antics got him where he is but are also keeping him from going any higher. Emily Blunt is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl who enters his life in a meet cute - he’s practicing his concession speech in the men’s room and she’s hiding out in the toilet after having crashed a wedding. Together they spark instantly, and she inspires him to deliver a from the heart concession speech that actually reignites his political career.
But they’re only supposed to have that one meeting, and never see each other again. We know that because the boys in the Adjustment Bureau tell us (and they tell us again and again. Nolfi, who also wrote the script, fears no exposition). The Adjustment Bureau are the snappily chapeuaed agents of fate, the guys who make sure that the Big Plan for humanity keeps moving smoothly. They like to do it subtly, by spilling coffee on your shirt and making you miss a bus, but if they must they can freeze you and play with your logical circuits. And if things get really rough they can take you out of the equation by erasing your brain totally.
The Adjustment Bureau makes no bones about who these guys are - they’re angels, and they work for God. Anthony Mackie’s character, who is Damon’s guardian angel, may as well be named Clarence. For some folks this would be a sticking point, but I loved the way the movie has no shame about its cosmology. In a cynical world there’s something very refreshing in that.
The entire film is refreshing in these cynical times. The guys in The Adjustment Bureau aren’t bad. Mackie is exhausted, and wonders if the ways he’s been manipulating the lives of humans is wrong. Mad Men’s John Slattery plays a middle management agent who just can’t catch a break. And even Terence Stamp, playing a higher level angel they call The Hammer, exudes sweetness with his moderate menace. Everybody’s doing what they think is right; according to the Plan the Bureau follows Damon’s character is destined for the White House - unless he ends up with Blunt.
In many ways the film is a deconstruction of romance movies; the steps along the way are all the same. We have the meet cute, and various impediments to the relationship as we go. The big finale involves Damon getting to the courthouse in time to stop Blunt from marrying the wrong guy, and the sweeping romantic end takes place on a rooftop high above the Manhattan skyline. In fact, the entire movie feels like it’s a peek behind the curtain of the forces that allow the fated lovers in a standard romantic film to come together, as if the stage hands of destiny accidentally stumbled out in front of the audience.
The Adjustment Bureau never really gets into thriller territory - there are some chases, but there’s no tension to them - but that’s okay because it spends more of its time with knotty philosophical issues. I like that the angels come out and tell Damon that his political career will end if he’s with Blunt not because of anything bad but because she’ll make him happy. She’ll fill the need in him to be loved, the need that drives him to stand before crowds. Happiness kills ambition, and true love is its own greatest reward.
More than that, it deals with the trickiest aspects of free will. We learn that humanity was given free will, when the Roman Empire was at its peak. The result was 500 years of the Dark Ages. A second experiment in free will was curtailed when it led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. There’s something comforting about fate being real, about knowing that what’s happening to you isn’t just a random jumble of chaotic occurrences. But on the other hand it’s horrible knowing that you’re on a track, predestined, and that whatever you do the outcome will be, generally, the same. The paradox of being genially oppressed is that it’s terrible being told what to do and it’s scary getting true freedom.
All of this would be pointless if it wasn’t for the casting. Too often in Hollywood films we’re asked to accept the two leads as lovers - or worse, soulmates - based only on their box office draw and good looks. Chemistry is the magic ingredient missing from too many films. But chemistry is something that Blunt and Damon have in excess. Each of their scenes together is a joy, filled with quick witted banter and actual, human comfort. They feel like two people who like being together, who complete each other. At the end, when things get about as heavy as they’re going to get in The Adjustment Bureau (spoiler: not very heavy at all), Damon asks Blunt to make a leap of faith for him, and when she makes it you feel not like this is a plot contrivance or a mechanic necessary to get to the finale of the film but like this is what these two people would do. The chemistry alone is enough to recommend this movie.
Nolfi wrote The Bourne Ultimatum, but he brings none of that to this film. There are chase scenes, but they’re usually good natured and often a little bit funny; Slattery especially brings an exasperated comedy to his role. What he does bring is an understanding that big special effects aren’t enough to really thrill us. There will be few special effects sequences in 2011 as actually stirring as a simple trick shot where Matt Damon opens a door in a restroom in downtown Manhattan to reveal the field of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. The Bureau travels through magic gateway doors (yes, with their snappy hats as the key), and the effect is wonderful. The film is filled with gorgeous New York City location photography, and when those locations become magically knit together through the simple act of opening a door it’s more awesome than all the giant robot battles in the world. Nolfi uses his FX to create a sense of palpable wonder, and he does subtly and without bells and whistles. The doors don’t glow or have hyperspace tunnels - they’re just doors, and something that shouldn’t be on the other side suddenly is.
The Adjustment Bureau is talky - we spend huge chunks of the film with the angels telling Damon what the rules are and why they have to keep him away from Blunt. It’s also almost totally free of threat; the angels really want Damon to become president, so every time they threaten to wipe his mind it rings false. But none of that matters when the film is as sweet and competent as this one. Smarter and gentler than many other Dick adaptations, The Adjustment Bureau plays with mind-bending scifi concepts and brain-busting philosophical ideas to eventually settle on being heart-warming.