Sometimes a film tries to be too many things to too many people. I think The Adjustment Bureau (2011) is one of these films. Like most Hollywood science fiction (or so it seems), this one appropriates a slick Philip K. Dick premise, and it actually executes that premise fairly well. But in its attempts to garner a broader appeal, it dilutes the idea’s potential with a number of conventional movie trappings.
When young “bad boy” congressman David Norris (Matt Damon) finds his Senate campaign derailed by scandal, he retreats to the men’s room to collect his thoughts, only to encounter Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), a charmingly plucky wedding crasher hiding out from security. Their brief, romantic cute-meet inspires Norris to deliver an electrifying concession speech that resurrects his political career. And when he later bumps into Elise on the bus, it seems like a fortuitous meeting of two people destined to be together — but unfortunately for David, the fates have other plans. “The Adjustment Bureau,” a nebulous supernatural organization that manipulates reality, has made a mistake: David and Elise are not meant to be together, and their second encounter — never meant to occur — threatens to derail the grand cosmic design, by giving David a glimpse of the secret, mechanistic workings “behind the curtain” of observable reality. An agent of the Bureau named Richardson (John Slattery) presents David with a choice — to either have his mind “reset,” or agree to keep his knowledge a secret and play by the Bureau’s rules, which include never seeing Elise again. But David is far too stubborn and impulsive for that, and ultimately he can’t help himself from pursuing love and life on his own terms, which pits him against the resources of the entire Bureau.
In general, the movie pulls off this classic Dickian premise effectively: establishing the “rules” of the idea, then building them into the plot. (Although how “the Plan” goes off-track, and what makes David so special and different, isn’t all that convincingly rendered structurally.) In its best moments, the collision of the fantastical and the bureaucratic is both amusing and depressing, which feels true to the spirit of Dick’s work — as are the hat-wearing minions in charge of bending reality, particularly those played by Slattery and Anthony Mackie. The Bureau is akin to the imposing ministries of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and the movie pulls off entertaining cinematic trickery in its depiction of how the bureaucrats travel “behind the scenes.”
Unfortunately, there are other movies layered on top of this intriguing Dickian mindgame that aren’t nearly as interesting. One is the “fated lovers” romance involving David and Elise, which is straight out of generic rom-com territory. Another is the paranoid conspiracy thriller, with the Bureau as the conspiracy and David and Elise as the frantic, isolated heroes trying to defy it. A third, perhaps, is the Hero’s Destiny fantasy, which pops up now and then whenever the script abandons the mundane nuts and bolts of its premise and broadens its canvas to consider the grander scheme of things. Salted throughout are pinches of politics and religion, which add flavor but often feel arbitrary. Only the ending is definitive, and pure Hollywood; of all the possible outcomes of the story, this is probably the one that focus groups would have picked.
The result is, I think, a stylistically and thematically indecisive film that has the feeling of design-by-committee. Which isn’t to say it fails to engage: the production is assured, Damon delivers a confident central performance, and the leads share a chemistry that transcends the material. But ultimately The Adjustment Bureau falls short of its potential; it defends every front, when perhaps it would have been better served to concentrate on a decisive battle.