George Nolfi’s very free adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1954 short story “Adjustment Team” is both pretentious and silly, a picture that addresses serious issues of fate and free will in the form of a mawkish adolescent adventure yarn. “The Adjustment Bureau,” as it’s been rechristened, comes off like a blandly pedestrian retread of “The Matrix,” sans all the gee-whiz gadgetry.
Dick’s premise was that an army of meta-humans actually control human affairs to large extent by making slight adjustments to events, bringing about a desired outcome. In the printed story—very much a product of its time during the Cold War—the protagonist, a real-estate salesman, is delayed going to work, so that he encounters the adjusters working on a zone of people. Eventually he’s told about the whole business—which in this case was done to relieve tensions between the US and the Soviet Union—and warned to keep it his secret, even from his wife.
Nolfi retains the basic idea but little else. In his version, the hero is David Norris (Matt Damon), a young Brooklyn congressman who loses a race for the Senate because of the revelation of a past indiscretion. On the night of his loss, he encounters—“cute,” of course—Elise (Emily Blunt), whom he’s immediately smitten with. She gives him the idea for an unusual concession speech that earns him public plaudits, but since he failed to ask her last name, it seems that they’re fated to remain apart.
Still he’s searching for her, though the adjustment bureau, a bunch of well-dressed, fedora-wearing gentlemen headed by Richardson (John Slattery), is endeavoring to prevent him from finding her because—as we’re later told—“the plan” doesn’t include their being together. Unfortunately—or not, depending on your POV—David’s watcher Harry (Anthony Mackie) fails to prevent him catching a bus three years later on which Elise is a passenger, and their romance is suddenly on again.
This leads the bureau to all sorts of machinations to tear them apart, utilizing the fact that David’s just beginning another run for the Senate and Elise, an aspiring ballet dancer, is rehearsing a new piece with her ex-boyfriend, a choreographer. When all else fails Richardson’s superiors bring in an older, more efficient fellow named Thompson (Terence Stamp) to resolve the matter. He manages to separate David and Elise by convincing the politico that if they stay together, all their dreams will be dashed, but later Norris regrets his decision and, when he learns Elise is about to marry, enlists Harry’s help to get her back. That involves David’s donning a fedora himself, using the bureau’s preferred mode of quick transport—through doors that immediately take them to other locales—and, with Elise in tow, breaking into the bureau’s corporate headquarters.
This is all more elaborate, more romantic, and ultimately more nutty that anything Dick envisioned. His story was just a tale of a little guy caught up in what was revealed as some inexplicable, businesslike higher power, capped off with a harmless (and, it must be said, none too clever) twist ending. Nolfi’s pumped it up to absurd lengths and rendered it far more absurd and pointless in the process. For one thing, he’s added not only the whole romantic plot, but the information that the reason David and Elise are so attracted to one another is that in a previous version of “the plan” they’d been destined to get together, which makes sense only if you assume that fate is something that’s altered by some unnamed providential force—God? Destiny?—haphazardly. Then he has Stamp’s Thompson give a speech about how his organization has allowed free will to humans at certain times in the past—at the fall of the Roman Empire, which he says led to the so-called “Dark Ages,” and at the turn to the twentieth century, which he says led to two World Wars and the Holocaust. To use such stuff in a cheesy adventure story is at best unseemly. And then to end it all with nothing more than the message that Love Conquers All is pretty pathetic.
On a more practical level, the movie simply isn’t very exciting. Too much of it is ponderous—played that way presumably because Nolfi considers his script profound—but when it goes into pursuit mode, it never takes off, not only because the chases aren’t staged with much elan, but because the main effect designed to juice them up—the “doors to other locales” motif—isn’t particularly interesting to begin with, from the visual standpoint, and quickly grows tiresomely arbitrary.
Throughout the nonsense Damon puts on a game face and Blunt has considerable charm—even if her strange dance scenes hardly persuade us that she’s going to be a great ballerina—and Mackie, Slattery and Stamp keep straight faces, which can’t have been easy. And on the technical side cinematographer John Toll makes good use of Manhattan locations. But even in that respect there’s nothing especially stylish or alluring on display. Piffle like this needs to be made with pizzazz to really grab you, and despite the outlandish premise of Dick’s tale, Nolfi’s take on it has a disappointingly ordinary feel.