With Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Terence Stamp. Directed by George Nolfi. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image. 116 minutes.
THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is a straight-ahead thriller that, when you stop to think about it, you’ll actually want to think about it. It’s based on a short story by the late, great Philip K. Dick who, almost alone among the masters of science fiction, seems to be an unending source for Hollywood. As with many of his stories, this one is about the breakdown of reality and the meaning of life. Or to put it in terms of a Theology or Philosophy 101 class: do you believe in free will?
David Norris (Matt Damon) is a candidate for the U.S. Senate from New York, but just before Election Day an adolescent prank derails his campaign. In a so-weird-you-can-almost-believe-it “meet cute,” he’s practicing his concession speech in a hotel men’s room when he discovers that party crasher Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) has been hiding in one of the stalls. Their conversation crackles with possibility, but then she’s chased away by hotel security. Norris, though, is inspired to give a from-the-heart speech that ends up making him a viable candidate in the future rather than an also-ran.
What if Elise hadn’t been there? Well, it turns out that in this particular variation of reality, there are these mysterious people who make sure things run according to “The Plan.” It was necessary for David and Elise to meet and now it’s necessary for them to never see each other again… according to The Plan. David, though, has other ideas and when he stumbles on the “adjusters” making their adjustments he decides he has to resist.
The remainder of the film is essentially one long chase as various “adjusters” – played by Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, and Terence Stamp, among others – try to get everyone back on The Plan. Their various tactics make the film a parable about free will vs. pre-destination. Are things “meant to be” or are we the authors of our own fates? This isn’t so much questioning God as questioning ourselves. Are we helplessly following a preordained destiny or do we have choices? What if, as David learns, the choice he prepares to make has unfortunate and unexpected consequences?
This is heady stuff for a Hollywood thriller which usually prefers the uncomplicated action of an “Unstoppable” to something that might make viewers squirm a bit. Damon is perfect as the Everyman. We might not be political superstars, but we all make choices every day, some big and some small, and sometimes wonder if following a different path might have made a difference in our lives. In the style of classic romantic films, his David is willing to risk it all for what he perceives as true love, with the film asking that we consider the consequences in Elise’s life as well. Blunt has less to do but manages to appear both feisty and smart enough to be worthy of his efforts.
The film moves quickly along as we see just how complicated it is to run everyone’s lives, making this less a conspiracy movie than a film wanting us to think for ourselves. That makes “The Adjustment Bureau” a very rare Hollywood film indeed. And that means a lot of critics won’t get it and some viewers will find their heads hurt even more than at a bad 3D movie. If it sounds intriguing though, go for it – it’s your choice.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.