At the Movies: ‘The Adjustment Bureau’

The Adjustment Bureau

Directed by George Nolfi

Review by Malcolm Maclachlan and Tony Sheppard


Malcolm: I’m just going to say right off that I hated this film. Not the kind of hate where a film is just straight-up bad in all ways. That kind of bad can be fun, as a recent family razing of “The Scorpion King” proved. No, “The Adjustment Bureau” takes good actors and a promising beginning and turns it into a schlocky, preachy, predictable mess that I hated more and more the longer I was away from the theater.

Tony: I had the opposite reaction. I was a little hesitant in the first few minutes, then gradually liked it more and more, and then it almost lost me about five minutes before the end when it does indeed seem a tad preachy. But then I started to like it more and more, the more I thought about it, and even the preachy ending seemed true to the material and the internal logic of the story.

Malcolm: In fact, I can pinpoint a moment early on—the meeting of leads David Norris (Matt Damon) and Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt)—where I wish the film would have veered in a far more conventional direction. Straight-laced politician Norris (note: there’s very little politics here) and free-spirited modern dancer Sellas share one thing—both can be slaves to impulse. Though if their love story wasn’t interrupted by conventionally mysterious men in 1950s-styles suits and hats, it more likely would have played out as a far more mundane story most people have witnessed and many have participated in: two people who share a strong mutual attraction but actually completely annoy each other once that initial attraction wears off. 

Tony: The meeting is key to much of the success (for me at least) of the rest of the film. I’m not a fan of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” because the film requires you to believe that the two leads are so meant to be together that they will be drawn to each other, repeatedly, despite having absolutely no onscreen chemistry. By comparison, in “The Adjustment Bureau” Damon and Blunt actually do seem like they’re a match, with little sparks flying between them. He especially seems willing to complicate his life just for a chance to see her again.

Malcolm: I think you’re reading “Spotless Mind”—which I loved—a bit wrong. It’s a tragedy because they’re drawn to each other but they’re terrible for each other. The plot here relies on the kind of concept we’ve seen in “The Matrix” or more recently “Inception”—that is, the reality we think we know is, at best, only part of the story. Of course, that is unquestionably true—and the political divide in this country is largely defined over whether you think that underlying reality is formed by angels, souls and spirits, or waves, radiation, and empty subatomic space. 

Tony: Right – but this is a film that requires you to go with the flow. If you stand back and question the concept, it may make no sense to you. But if you roll with the idea, it’s one of the more internally consistent stories of this kind that have been made. And it’s even quite thought provoking at times.

Malcolm: Those films created a reality where the filmmakers could make the rules because they were actually inside a dream or a computer. “The Adjustment Bureau” posits that our world is staffed by mysterious man-spirits who are ordered to change our fate, usually without knowing why. It’s like a non-denominational version of “The Matrix,” without religion or God specifically being mentioned, but looming over the proceedings anyway. The only thing I really mind about this is that is sucks the suspense out early on—but that’s a pretty major objection on a film that purports to rely in suspense.

Tony: But it does more than that. It brings up and also challenges the notion of free will in an interesting context. I watched a documentary once, in which a theologian was discussing the God of the Old Testament. In those stories, God is often seen as a vengeful and autocratic. But he was suggesting that the flood story hints at more of a young God, like a child building with blocks and then changing his mind and scattering them, before starting over. “The Adjustment Bureau” is interesting in that it suggests that there can be powerful being that isn’t necessarily quite all-knowing or quite all-powerful, and who can make mistakes. It’s a view of religion that I actually find far more compelling than the all powerful, all-knowing variety. And it does add back the suspense as we realize that not quite all is known after all.

Malcolm: It is kind of sweet to see how Norris tries to keep his girl in the face of a universe that keeps telling him no. But, at the same time, you wonder how an omnipotent power structure can’t seem to stop this one particularly motivated individual when it moves mountains, commits murder and changes history most days before lunch. Which goes to my big problem: Damon and Blunt (who seems like she accidentally wandered in from a better, lower-budget movie) win not by outsmarting their opponents, but by convincing the boss that they’re right.

Tony: But I think that’s the point of the movie. We’re being tested and the test is largely one of our ability to make good decisions. We’ve failed in the past and our chaperones are trying to steer us in the right direction. They’re doing this to some extent by attempting to identify the most worthy doers and thinkers – the ones who might finally lead things in the right direction. So there’s very little that could possibly score higher than somebody who appears to make good decisions for the right reasons.

Malcolm: I agree that’s the point. I just doesn’t work for me. When you seem to have a higher power that changes to be exactly what each new era needs from him, I get reminded of that old quote, “Beware of any God who hates the exact same people you do.” The issue here isn’t hate but free will, but my point—that it’s all a little too facile— I think holds. But this may explain why most of the audience seemed to love it: the idea that, even when we’re alone, someone is watching, someone cares, that our fate can be changed through force of will. Maybe that’s true, but it’s definitely more seductive than the alternative: no one is watching, no one cares, and everything will be forgotten.

Tony: I agree that it will appeal to some for those reasons. But it appealed to me for quite different reasons, and I think it says something else entirely about fate. I think if this was the version of religion I had been taught, that life was a test that we could actually win, perhaps even to the extent of outsmarting the boss, I might have bought into it more as a kid. It’s a world of better and worse, not a world of absolutes. A world in which a man can make God second guess himself, not one in which only the opposite happens. It’s a world in which faith isn’t simply expected without question, it’s underwritten by demonstration and proof, albeit accidental. It’s religion and religious storytelling for pragmatists, and I liked it for what it was.

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