The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

The Adjustment Bureau first published by Little White Lies

The youngest person ever to have been voted into the House of Congress, David Norris (Matt Damon) seems destined for greatness – but when the media expose a prank that he pulled back in his university days, his bid to become New York’s Senator is crushed, and so is he. As David prepares for a possible early retirement from politics, he runs into dancer Elise (Emily Blunt) hidden in the men’s room at the Waldorf. Sparks fly, and their brief conversation leads him to go off script, improvising an inspirational concession speech that secures his future career even in present defeat.   

As it happens, ‘going off script’ is a key motif in George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau – not just because Nolfi’s screenplay deviates considerably from the letter (while sticking to the spirit) of Philip K. Dick‘s 1954 short story Adjustment Team, but also because Norris will turn out to be a Pirandello-esque character in search of an author able to rewrite his life’s prescribed trajectory. The Senatorial hopeful may feel straitened in what he can say and do by his handlers and focus groups, but he will soon discover that there are much higher hidden forces adjusting and manipulating his every move. Even his ‘meet-cute’ with Elise will turn out to have been no chance encounter, but an event carefully contrived to ensure his continuing ascent towards the Presidency. 

You see, the noirishly hatted and suited men of the shadowy Adjustment Bureau are “the people who make sure things happen according to plan” – earthbound angels serving a grand narrative for humanity that is pre-written (and occasionally revised) by the ‘Chairman’. While they certainly want the charismatic, decent David to become a world leader, they have not factored into their scheme that he would accidentally learn of their existence, nor that he would fall madly in love with Elise – something which is definitely not on the cards for his (or indeed her) particular fate. So even as David climbs to power, he will also struggle to go off script once again, relentlessly pursuing the girl that he was never supposed to see again, despite the Bureau’s every by-the-book effort to thwart his amorous efforts. But is David rushing away from his manifest destiny, or towards it?

The protagonist of Dick’s story was a happily married realtor (named Ed Fletcher), and his rôle in a divine plan to end the Cold War was marginal at best. By changing Ed into the future political messiah David, and introducing the forbidden love interest Elise, Nolfi invests the original with the more cinematic arcs of a rags-to-riches political drama, a romance, and a chase thriller. Conversely, Dick’s uncanny high concept brings a much-needed new spin to each of these filmic conventions. Here the paranoid political conspiracy, though more or less familiar from films like the The Manchurian Candidate, The Net, Enemy of the State and Eagle Eye, takes on an unexpectedly theological bent; here the genrebound obstacle to the romantic pair’s union turns out, uniquely, to be a providential insurance policy for the entire human race; and while the climactic high-speed pursuit may have all the pace and excitement of a standard thriller (Nolfi’s previous screenplays include Ocean’s Twelve, The Sentinel and The Bourne Ultimatum), it is conducted through a series of paradoxical space-confounding portals scattered about New York, with not a single gun in sight. 

So the narrative is all at once high stakes and low key, with most of the ‘effects’ conveyed practically or through editing, and with the divine machinery grounded considerably by the chemistry between Damon and Blunt. Through the dramatic device of the Bureau, ‘Chairman’ Nolfi is able to lay bare the contrivances of his own screenwriting. For this is truly a script about its own process, including (fictive) traces of earlier abandoned versions, multiple redrafts, and last-minute rewrites designed to accommodate the on-location improvisations of the players. 

Still, in unfolding such an elaborate story, Nolfi allows himself to find a simplistic narrative resolution to his film’s central conflict between between chance and causality – and the result is to transform Dick’s original double-edged ending into an utterly clichéd exercise in wish fulfillment. Here, apparently, the key to exercising individual free will in a (benignly) deterministic universe is just to wish hard enough and to fight for what you want all the way. Yep, it’s the can-do optimism of the American Dream, with a dash of Disney – and while it gives the film the happy end that some may desire, it also represents a disappointing betrayal of every concept with which the rest of the film has grappled. At least Richard Kelly’s The Box (2009) had the strength to follow its convictions through to their bitter end, whereas here the ethical dilemma is not so much tackled head-on as all too conveniently written out of the script, in the ultimate deus ex machina.

This is, nonetheless, an impressive and confident directorial debut – and perhaps Nolfi’s choice of dénouement just shows that, like a divine author, he knows in advance what his viewers have secretly wanted all along…   

Anticipation: Well, when it comes to adaptations, there’s good Dick and bad Dick…

Enjoyment: Careful balancing of character drama and high-concept thrills grips to the end… 

In Retrospect: …but the ending itself is disappointingly Disney-fied, undoing much of the good work that precedes.

strap: George Nolfi’s reflexive Dickian adaptation reimagines the American dream as a script constantly doctored by semi-divine intervention

Anton Bitel