The Adjustment Bureau
Written and Directed By: George Nolfi
Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slatterly, Michael Kelly, and Terrence Stamp.
Director of Photography: John Toll; Editor: Jay Rabinowitz; Original Music: Thomas Newman; Production Design: Kevin Thompson
Rated: PG-13 for some language, a flash of sex, and some brief moments of violence.
Scanning any library for their philosophy section will be dozens, if not hundreds of books, on whether this species has free will, or if our lives are determined for us. Some explain that a higher power controls all, while some argue physics controls are lives, while others fight for human control. However, in The Adjustment Bureau, which is adapted a short story by Philip K. Dick, director George Nolfi asks a different question: do we deserve free will?
A simple but endlessly complex question, and one that challenges in this slick and often reserved science fiction thriller, beefed up by the presence of its star Matt Damon. Mr. Nolfi, making his directorial debut after co-writing The Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean’s 12 for Mr. Damon, understands the ultimate rule of science fiction: less is more. Instead of giving us an incredible layered and complex universe, Mr. Nolfi instead focuses on characters and the romance that connects them. He lets us indulge with Mr. Damon as he flirts with his co-star Emily Blunt, letting us understand these characters before we get into any ridiculous notions of how a team of free will advisors could ever control the world.
Mr. Damon plays David Norris, a good-boy congressman from New York running for senate, despite his young looks and party boy past. He loses the election, but after a chance encounter with a ballet dancer (Ms. Blunt) in a men’s restroom, he gives an amazing concession speech that fast tracks him for a few years down the road. A month later, he runs into that same ballet dancer, finds out her name is Elise, but then arrives at work to find the space-time continuum frozen and men wearing scary fedoras scanning his colleagues. It turns out that David has a certain life plan set on him from the powers above and has fallen off it, and the titular Bureau, made up of character actors like John Slatterly (Mad Men) and Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker), are here to fix it.
David spends three years ignoring the truth, but when fate brings him back together with Elise, he tries to fight for it, despite the Bureau’s ability to control the entire world and use any door to sneak around. Instead of filling his story with big special effects, Mr. Nolfi makes the Bureau almost anachronistic in setting, like a spy group of the 1970s. The effect works terrifically, because the film uses suspense instead of action, mystery, instead of explosions.
Despite some sloppy dialogue, Mr. Damon and Ms. Blunt find the way to make their absurd three random days out of a five years feel like an eternity. In their first scene, the climax would feel out of place, but the actors are so fun to watch that it only comes off as natural, and look damn good doing it too.
It all can’t add up perfect, and The Adjustment Bureau perhaps skips a little too much and tries to create an action filled ending, with a climax that can be quite polarizing, a nonending that side steps explanation in favor of convenience. But the film leaves questions instead of answers, and keeps us wondering instead of filling us with knowledge. It also has its burning question in the center: do we deserve free will? I don’t know if Mr. Nolfi has the answer to it, but I think he would rather pose it than turn every stone.