The Adjustment Bureau, a George Nolfi-penned adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story “Adjustment Team,” toys with some intriguing existential notions. But, par for the course in high-concept Hollywood films, it dispenses too neatly and easily with the complications of its central idea. In The Adjustment Bureau, fate is the problem, and Matt Damon is the solution.
Some credit is due: The Adjustment Bureau is quite fleet and entertaining, when it isn’t stumbling on its inconsistent internal logic—frustrating in its rather transparent goal to conveniently benefit Damon’s mission at the right moments of the story. This might seem like a silly complaint—after all, fiction is loaded with dramatically convenient happenstance, but this trope is a little harder to swallow in a story in which steadfast predetermination acts as the metaphysical villain.
Damon turns in a characteristically likable performance as David Norris, a former New York congressman turned businessman.
Norris witnesses the machinations of the eponymous Adjustment Bureau when he walks into his coworker’s office and finds men in dark suits scanning his friend’s frozen head with strange handheld devices. Agent Richardson (John Slattery) soon catches up to the fleeing Norris and explains to him the nature of the organization. Richardson and his cohorts are responsible for tweaking the vicissitudes of people’s lives so that they go according to The Plan. “You’ve seen behind a curtain you didn’t know existed,” Richardson says.
Richardson then tells Norris that he wasn’t supposed to have met Elise (Emily Blunt)—the woman Norris kissed the night he lost his Senate bid—again on the bus that morning, and that he must not only forget about her but also never tell anybody about what he witnessed that morning at the Bureau. To drive the point home, he burns the phone number Elise gave Norris earlier. Three years later, Norris sees Elise again on the street, and here his (and the film’s) troubles begin.
For one, The Adjustment Bureau makes an unconvincing case for the inclusion of random chance in its narrative repertoire. “That wasn’t us,” Richardson explains unsatisfactorily about Norris and Elise’s encounter on the street. “That was chance.” Again, chance is one of the greatest tools of storytelling, but in a film that is precisely about the opposite of chance, it is a too obviously a device used to suspend disbelief. The coexistence of both predetermination and chance feels less like a thematic point and more like a hasty and grossly undercooked explanation for why the lovers meet again. The convoluted rules of The Bureau’s game keep on shifting, so that the film can reach its predictable conclusion intact.
To its credit, The Adjustment Bureau does present a promising tension between personal ambition and “true love” about three quarters of the way through, before overpoweringly opting for the latter at the end. The decision the film makes isn’t a problem in itself, but coupled with the film’s problematically inconsistent premise, it makes The Adjustment Bureau just one more of Hollywood’s high-concept attempts to tell us that love conquers all. It’s a waste of an interesting idea.