Review: The Adjustment Bureau


Let’s get one important point out of the way first: no matter what the posters and trailers may claim, The Adjustment Bureau bears little to no resemblance to either Bourne or Inception, apart from in the presence of Bourne scribe George Nolfi behind the camera, Matt Damon in front of it, and a loose approach to the rules of reality that recall Nolan’s film only in the broadest sense. Bureau is not an action film by any stretch of the imagination. There are two on-foot chases and one car crash, but no guns or explosions or elaborate set-pieces. The officers of the eponymous bureau use their powers in mostly subtle and low-key ways, as befits a world where they and their actions are expected to go unseen.

Adjustment Bureau defies easy genre classification. Perhaps it can be best summarised as a metaphysical romantic chase movie with sci-fi elements, which should paradoxically tell you everything and nothing of what you want to know. That freewheeling sensibility works out as both the film’s strongest and weakest suits: on the one hand, it’s a pleasure to watch a film that is reasonably fast-paced without relying on violence. On the other, a proliferation of loose ends and under-developed characters indicate a script that could have done with a little more adjusting. See what I did there?

It’s fairest to describe Nolfi’s film (which he wrote as well as directed) as inspired by Philip K. Dick’s short story Adjustment Team rather than adapted from it. The key scene is here – the protagonist walking into an office where everyone has been frozen by fate-adjusting officers – and the romantic conflict between Damon’s David Norris and Emily Blunt’s Elise vaguely relates to the lies that Dick’s protagonist Fletcher has to tell his wife to prevent her from discovering the truth about his glimpse behind reality’s curtain. Everything else is drastically different: Damon’s Norris is not an office everyman, but a high-flying political congressman on course to be voted into the Senate. The romantic plot at the heart of this film, with Norris risking a metaphysical lobotomy for breaking a predestined cosmic plan by chasing the woman he wasn’t supposed to fall in love with, also has no precedent in the original text. Dick’s absurdism, with his plot revolving around a dog barking and a telephone booth ascending to heaven, is mostly abandoned, although the source of the adjustment officers’ powers is perhaps unintentionally funny. (Even moreso when Norris has a brainwave as to how to disarm them). It’s not a problem per se, but does raise the question as to why the writers felt the need to credit Dick’s story at all, considering how different most of it is. Perhaps it was because the author’s name has become synonymous with intellectually stimulating sci-fi, but anyone aware of that would also know how little respect Hollywood has had in adapting his work so far.

The reason I bring this up is because attempts to convey the original text’s questions about fate and free will come across here as leaden and unconvincing, as though Nolfi felt he needed to do justice to that aspect of the story but didn’t have his own clear perspective on the matter. Had this been an original story, he probably would have felt safer in leaving the material to raise its own questions and the audience to draw conclusions rather than shoehorning someone else’s philosophy into awkward conversation pieces. Its sole fresh contribution to the story’s supernatural elements is the officers’ use of doors for quick transportation around the city, providing some neat visual gags during the climactic chase sequence, but even this feels half-inched from The Matrix Reloaded, where it was given a more logical context.

That lack of clarity extends to the film’s story, which ironically is in deficit of the detail and planning that this kind of sci-fi requires to maintain the audience’s belief in a fantastical premise. As a conceit, the Bureau works well enough and early on, the absence of certain details work in the film’s favour. The idea of an administrative department governing predestination is a fascinating one and naturally increases the stakes when a character decides to defy their plans for him. In the film’s engaging first hour, the Bureau are made mysterious not only by their powers, but also how little we know of who they are or why they’re so desperate to redirect Norris’ life away from Elise. This is compounded when it is revealed that the officers themselves may not even know why they’re being asked to do so, and further still when a potential subplot opens up that maybe Norris and Elise were once meant for each other, only for ‘the plan’ to be subject to late revision. Unfortunately, the more we learn about the Bureau, the less awe-inspiring it becomes. Suggestions of its links to Biblical religion are as on-the-nose as they come: when Norris asks one of the officers if they are angels, the reply is of the ‘we have many names’ variety and references to ‘the chairman upstairs’ don’t exactly leave much to the imagination. As Nolfi piles on the details of exactly how the Bureau works, the overexplanation carries an unwelcome whiff of the midichlorian variety.

Worse still is how Nolfi puts so much work into elaborating on this one area that the story and characters are left behind. The subplot about Norris and Elise’s once shared destiny is reduced to a device explaining away an earlier chance encounter, a doubly strange decision when the film has no qualms in stating that coincidences happen from time to time and are outside the Bureau’s control. The sole development of the all-important romance happens in a handful of scenes where Elise is either doing the full-on manic pixie dreamgirl schtick that a man like Norris would likely find incredibly irritating (dropping his phone in his coffee, for example), or he’s breaking her heart time and time again, only for her to forgive him because they’re sort-of-but-not-quite predestined to be together. Norris’ pursuit of her as the officers throw obstacles in his path is fun, but their moments together fail to pay off his efforts in any worthwhile manner.

At least the cast make the most of the inconsistent writing. Damon’s real-life political activism make him a convincing Obama analogue (making appearances on The Daily Show, natch) and he delivers his speeches with the kind of force and belief that is easy to rally behind. It overcomplicates the story to put the character in that role though and requires extensive liberties to be taken with how such a man would interact with the world: fair enough that he’s not running for President just yet, but given his evident popularity and fame, would he really be able to act the way he does without attracting attention, especially since his ‘immaturity’ is apparently an electoral issue? Damon nevertheless makes an engaging lead, so long as you don’t think too hard about the logistics of what’s going on. The supporting actors also do good work with similarly questionable material. Emily Blunt keeps Elise likeable even if she, like Norris, seems to change into someone quite different for the second half of the film and has little to do outside of reacting to other people’s actions. Jon Slattery brings a hint of depth to the nothing role of lead adjustment officer (before being inexplicably replaced later on), suggesting an affinity for Norris’ rebellious streak that he too may once have possessed. Terrence Stamp just does his growly face, which is as much as his role calls for.

Adjustment Bureau is a film of two halves. Its first hour is exciting and mysterious, with a refreshingly non-violent ethos and strong performances driving a central idea that easily engages the attention. Problems arise once it becomes clear that having built up all these fascinating notions, Nolfi has little idea what to do with them. The inner-workings of the Bureau are unnecessarily overwritten and the characters and plot left dangling, culminating in a rushed ending that attempts to wrap up the film in under five minutes by not only falling back on the laziest and most cringeworthy cliché imagineable, but then rounding it all up with a summarising voice-over that offers a patronisingly simplistic platitude on philosophical questions that should have been left open. For a film about planning the future, it has remarkable trouble keeping track of itself.

Overall Score: 6.45 – Okay (6s are just okay. These movies usually have many flaws, didn’t try to do anything special, or were poorly executed. Some will still love 6s, but most prefer to just rent them. Watch more trailers and read more reviews before you decide)

Geoff Henao: 6.75 — Okay. The Adjustment Bureau should have been better. What started off so strongly ends up finishing fairly weakly. Fans of Philip K. Dick, as I find myself being, will be disappointed with the delivery of Horselover Fat’s latest adaptation. It’s a great premise about pre-destination and humanity’s role in following the plans, but whatever level of depth that’s established in the bulk of the film is quickly squashed in the rushed and terribly-paced last act. I recommend it, but only because Philip K. Dick stories deserve the attention, even if such adaptations end up being misguided. Oh hey, an Adjustment Bureau joke.