Missing the mystery in THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU

March 2, 2011

It’s the constant, endless question of our existence — free will or fate? People everywhere debate whether we have the chance to change the course of history or if we are merely pawns in a more epic plan. Whether in faith, mythology or “Terminator,” echoes of the issue are everywhere. But though “The Adjustment Bureau” tries its best to pick up this central question and juggle it around, it ultimately just tosses it from one hand to the next and never elevates it to any sort of insight.

Adapted from the Philip K. Dick short story “The Adjustment Team,” the film depicts a system of societal control that manipulates physical environment and people’s thinking in order to push reality to the set outcome of the mysterious, overarching “plan.” By deploying teams of “adjusters” who wield “plan books” and can shift reality in the blink of an eye, the system has its hand in everything from political affairs to personal relationships. “The Adjustment Bureau” looks at both of those sides, as New York Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon, “The Departed”) loses a Senate bid, discovers the love of his life, Elise (Emily Blunt, “Gulliver’s Travels”), and then must fight to hold on to her as the adjusters try to keep them apart.

Early on, the film keeps the audience guessing as to the forces behind the strange events, but the exciting mystery of those first few minutes doesn’t last. Somewhere around the catalyst of the first act, we’re already given everything we need to know. We meet our adversaries — Richardson (John Slattery, TV’s “Mad Men”) and Harry (Anthony Mackie, “The Hurt Locker”) — and they explain to Norris exactly what it is they do and how it is they do it.

Symptomatically, therein lies the film’s dilemma. It treats audiences like teenagers, spoon-feeding them exposition and dull dialogue after they’ve been more than satisfied. When it comes to storytelling in film, less is more, and it becomes almost exhausting to have something thrown at you that you already understand.

Without mystery, much of the premise seems almost silly, with men in hats walking robotically on rooftops and Matt Damon running around New York City and passing through doors. No matter how cool the theoretical story is, it isn’t translated well to the screen.

In all of this is the film’s redeeming quality — the chemistry between David and Elise, the product of focused performances by Damon and Blunt. Elise is a loose cannon in her own right — we meet her in a men’s bathroom right after crashing a wedding. David is confined to the measured constraints of his career but wishes to break out. But though the characters are fleshed out and fit the story well, they are eventually betrayed by the incompleteness of their arcs — they aren’t pushed far enough to desperation before reaching their story’s end.

The film positions its elements as epic and world-changing. The adjusters in the system are more than just shifting micro qualities of each of our lives; they apply their force in measured cues according to what they believe the human race needs. The question of free will is ultimately considered as not so much a reflection of society as it is now, but rather as it exists in David’s specific story and how his actions can change its definition entirely. And that’s not so bad a thing — it keeps the meaning of the story within the story, and lets the viewer extrapolate it to whatever they see fit.

But “The Adjustment Bureau” doesn’t limit itself to these confines, instead bringing World Wars and historic conflicts into its discourse. Because of this, it becomes too much more than a simple movie — but for the viewer, that’s much, much less.

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