The Adjustment Bureau
Starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt
“The stakes were never that high.” That was the sentence that perpetually looped through my mind as I watched the high-concept thriller “The Adjustment Bureau.” The phrase is used often to describe a story where consequences are like afterthoughts, when the choices and actions have so little consequence that the effort seems almost wasted.
“The Adjustment Bureau” is one of those movies with a concept so ridiculous that it would require almost flawless execution to avoid descending into semi-parody. I’ll save readers some time: It ain’t flawless.
Phillip K. Dick is a sci-fi author whose works have been pillaged over the past few decades to try and create a smarter science-fiction film. Sometimes it works. “Blade Runner” is a fine example. So is the first 90 minutes of “Minority Report,” before Spielberg lost his nerve and killed the third act. The kernels of ideas encased in his stories are clever.
However, translating his fiction to film has presented some very talented people with some very glaring challenges.
The films made based off Dick’s work end up being loud misfires that end up being crushed under the weight of the idea. Movies like “Paycheck” and “The Imposter” come to mind, films that sell a cool idea and never quite deliver upon the setup. “The Adjustment Bureau” is exactly that kind of film. The setup is intriguing enough: A successful man meets a beautiful woman by chance. There is immediate chemistry. He can’t get her out of his head. They meet again some time later and he gets her phone number. But then he encounters a group of mystery men who inform him that he can never see her again.
Their identity is a mystery to David Norris (Matt Damon), a promising politician with charisma and an impulse control problem. They kidnap him and take him to a room to explain that everyone has a plan. And as agents of the Adjustment Bureau, they have to keep that plan in motion. The beautiful woman he met, Elise (Emily Blunt), is not part of the equation. David is shown behind the curtain where they reveal his plans involve leading the free world, not falling in love and throwing it all away. It’s a great premise. Do you choose a life of success or a life of love?
However, that premise is not nearly as foreboding and thrilling as the film would have you believe. There’s no life or death here. Just two different paths to choose from: career or love. Like all existential films, the theme here is “choice” and “lack of choice.” But in films that ask similar questions, there’s usually some kind of dire consequence for making that choice. “The Adjustment Bureau” has no stakes—and therefore no tension. Without tension it quickly devolves into a movie that expends way too much energy trying to make audiences think that choices matter.
It’s a shame because Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have fantastic chemistry. The opening 15 minutes featuring Damon and Blunt’s chance encounter are engaging and fun to watch. The movie is pretty damn watchable until the guys in fedoras show up, and start waxing philosophical about plans and destiny, and all that nonsense that sends the story spiraling into silliness. I would love to see these two in another film that doesn’t require them to utter nonsensical drivel.
Every problem with this film can be traced back to execution. The script is corny, the dialogue is at times laughable, and the direction is haphazard. Even the production design and wardrobe felt awkward. All the choices felt wrong. There’s nothing ominous about the shadowy group of hat-wearing agents that follow our characters around trying to act menacing. The attempts at explaining the existence of the bureau and the rules which they work by make little sense.
By the film’s end, I found myself chuckling. This is one of those movies that folks have to buy into early, because if they don’t, they’ll end up like me: laughing more than one would hope. “The Adjustment Bureau” is kind of a mess. Good actors saddled with bad material and a concept that is never developed to its full potential. It feels almost ironic that a movie about plans and structure feels so lost.