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Film Review: The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau (2011; Directed by George Nolfi)

David Norris (Matt Damon) is one of those people who simply seemed tapped for success from a young age. Destined for greatness, you might say. Despite growing up in the legendary white ghetto of Red Hook in Brooklyn and losing his entire family in various tragic circumstances by the time he reaches adulthood, Norris still manages to be becomes the youngest person ever elected to the U.S. Congress (at the utterly improbable age of 24!). We learn much of this in The Adjustment Bureau‘s opening montage of campaign appearances, fawning media coverage, and the male lead’s grinning face; perhaps the day will come when Damon (40 years of age when the film was made) will not be cast as the boyish upstanding man who achieves beyond his tender years, but it will not come before America abandons the habit of having its top television journalists appear as narrative-embellishing sycophants in its movies (Jon Stewart debases himself by appearing not once but twice with Norris as his guest).

Norris runs for the Senate in New York, but suffers a humbling thumping at the polls after some photos of a prank confirm the frat-boy labels concerning his youth and inexperience. On the night of the election, while rehearsing his inspiration-lite concession speech, he encounters an attractive, mischievous free spirit of a woman (Emily Blunt) in a hotel washroom. They talk, flirt, are briefly, brutally honest as only strangers in the movies can be, and then kiss before she is run off by security. An enervated Norris goes on to give the sort of disillusioned speech calling out focus-group politics and the tyranny of image polishing that the American public likes to imagine that it wants to hear from its politicians but will invariably react with hostility to when someone dares to actually pull back that particular curtain. But this is Hollywood, so the speech goes over gangbusters. Even as he retreats to the private sector, Norris is discussed as a shoe-in for another Senate run in four years, and maybe higher offices beyond that.

Something strange and sinister begins to creep into the daily life of David Norris as he commutes to his first day of work at the venture capital firm of his longtime best friend Charlie Traynor (Michael Kelly). Despite the botched efforts of men in old-fashioned suits and fedoras to throw him off with a spilt coffee, he serendipitously encounters the woman from election night on a Manhattan bus, coming away with a name (Elise) and a phone number. But when he arrives at the office, all of his new coworkers are frozen in mid-motion, and the men in the suits and hats appear to be tinkering with Traynor’s head.

This adjustment crew capture Norris after he tries to bolt, and their apparent leader or spokesman Richardson (John Slattery) has no choice but to explain their modus operandi. They are the worker bees of a higher power, the Chairman, who has laid out meticulous plans for the life paths of every human on the planet and relies upon the men of this bureau to ensure that the plans are carried out to their preset conclusions. The things that happen to us, the twists and turns that define our lives, are neither chance nor the result of our free will and decisions; everything that happens to us is predetermined in advance, and the men of the Adjustment Bureau make sure to hide the strings. Had Richardson’s subordinate Harry (Anthony Mackie) not napped through his assignment, Norris would not have met Elise again and certainly would not have caught them at the office fine-tuning his corporate future.

Richardson warns Norris off Elise and especially off revealing them or their mission, on the pain of a total memory wipe that would be akin to a lobotomy. But Norris, who feels his stubborn determination and not a fine-tuned divine plan brought him through humble beginnings and tragedy to the verge of greatness, refuses to cut off ties with a woman that he feels himself falling for, who he seems to (and, as it happens, may actually) be meant to be with. Even when offered a stark choice between love and mutual professional failure for himself and Elise (a contemporary dancer), Norris is not dissuaded; not even an escalation in Bureau antagonists from ironical Roger Sterling to imperious General Zod (Terence Stamp as Thompson) discourages him. He will challenge the predetermined plans and authority of the Chairman him(her?)self, as he would rather live free than submit to invisible control.

The Adjustment Bureau is a curious but not uninvolving film that skirts the edge of many genres. It has a central romantic element that is frequently subsumed by its speculative concept, but the execution of that concept is too smooth and naturalistic to qualify as science fiction. Its pulse doesn’t pound like a thriller, its incident and activity never rise to the frenetic energy of an action flick, and its ideas and themes are broad and deep but never intellectually challenging or unsettling to a serious degree. It’s a resolutely old-fashioned film in its presentation, pace, performances (Damon and Blunt are very Studio Era in their general approach), simmering-wit dialogue, ideological conclusions, and clean, friendly Manhattan setting.

Again, this is not to say that The Adjustment Bureau is not enjoyable or nicely crafted. Director George Nolfi very carefully and deliberately associates the quasi-angelic Bureau operatives not with Judeo-Christian conceptions of divine intervention in human affairs but with the ubiquity of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit types that run the world through the diffused conduit of transnational business. It’s a prototypically Corporate America idea of God and power: an unseen business titan ensconced high in a Lower Manhattan skyscraper with an army of functionaries doing their bidding in the wider world (all agents but Harry, the sympathetic ally of Norris played by go-to genre film sidekick Mackie, are given patronymic surnames, emphasizing their anonymity). It’s not a very empathetic or humanistic vision of choices and fate, and Nolfi frequently imparts a sense of dwarfed isolation by placing his actors in vast, slightly anachronistic midcentury architectural spaces. People are made insignificant in comparison with the gilded finery and ambitious largesse of these places, just as the Chairman’s exquisitely worked-out plan for their lives makes their daily struggles and hopes seem insignificant.

Stamp’s Thompson lectures Norris concerning humanity’s dubious exercises in free will at one point in The Adjustment Bureau, revealing that both the degeneration of the Roman Empire into the violent chaos of the Dark Ages and the 20th Century’s wars and genocides and environmental devastation were the result when the Chairman stepped back and let human beings manage their own affairs for a time. It’s a pessimistic conceit and a historically questionably one as well; the Gibbon-fed popular misconception of Rome as a civilized utopia chased by medieval backwardness has been unfashionable in historical scholarship for a century at least, and the 20th Century’s mechanized barbarism had technological, political, and ideological roots in the 19th Century, as well as numerous dress rehearsals. In this way and others as well, The Adjustment Bureau aims to be grand, entertaining meditation on free will vs. determinism, but its strokes are too broad and its conclusions too pat to be a particularly memorable one.

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