This may turn out to be rather heavy on the spoilers by the time I’m done. I’m not sure though. I haven’t decided. You’ve been warned.
The best thing about Philip K. Dick is not that he’s a great writer, put together volumes of wildly creative stories, or anything else often associated with his name. No, what was really brilliant about him was that he knew what science-fiction was for. Perhaps an odd thing to say, but as the genre (especially if we include fantasy) expands, it becomes more and more clear that few do.
Luckily (because Adjustment Team is a short story, and ultimately only tangentially related to the film’s final product), the same is true of George Nolfi, the writer and directer of The Adjustment Bureau. It’s purpose, rather than simply having ray guns in your action sequences, is to talk about real life better, by talking about the unreal. To showcase the inner workings of regular life, and zero in on them.
In this case, the focus is on free will, a subject that has stymied most people’s efforts to discuss it since the first person came up with the term. Of course, there are a few different sides of this coin being mulled over, and not merely the general idea of whether we have it or not, but also what it really means to thwart the will of others, and when, if ever, we have the right to make decisions for others when it is in their best interest. Heady stuff for a film with a trailer that shows a lot of running.
As we enter the film, David Norris (Matt Damon) is just about to lose the election for New York Senator (as a result of his making stupid choices). Faced with this crushing reality, he goes to the public hotel bathroom to spend a good deal of time working up the nerve to give a concession speech. Against all odds, he meets a woman named Elise (Emily Blunt), who was hiding from hotel security, because she crashed a wedding. The two strike up a conversation, and are instantly attracted to each other. Of course, this is not a situation that is likely to come to much, and she soon dashes off, still being pursued by security.
As a result of this chance meeting (perhaps), David returns to the concession speech he was about to give, and delivers a spontaneous attack on the entire system of running for office, which naturally makes him the immediate, and nearly unbeatable front-runner for the next election.
Before things even really get started for David, we are introduced to some strange men wearing ’30s era suits and hats, who seem to be following him. They speak forebodingly about the world, and the things they may or may not be doing, and generally act creepy and menacing. One of them warns another that David must spill coffee on his shirt by an exact time, and we’re clued in to the fact that some seriously odd things are afoot.
The coffee appointment doesn’t come to pass, which leads not only to David running into Elise again, but also to David showing up at work before he was supposed to, and he finds these odd-suited men doing some very strange things indeed. It turns out that these men are “Adjusters,” and they are charged with making sure everything goes according to “the plan.” Said plan, the work of The Chairman, who is obviously at the head of the adjustment bureau, is how things are supposed to work out, and the actual world sometimes needs a nudge in order to keep things moving in the right direction.
Generally, these adjustments are the sort of things no one would ever notice. Someone spills coffee on David’s shirt, and when he goes home to change, he doesn’t meet Elise again, doesn’t show up to work on time, and no one has any reason to think that strings are being pulled. Unfortunately, more drastic measures are sometimes needed, which is why a crew were in David’s office pointing glowing sticks at people’s brains.
David has seen them now, and we naturally need some action. Captured by the adjusters, David is given a quick run down on how things really work, and is told that he can never reveal them to anyone, or see Elise again, and if he doesn’t do as he’s told, they’ll just erase his mind.
Eventually, they do happen upon each other again, David having actually never given up the impossible search, and though the time they’ve actually spent together is almost implausibly brief, they find that they are hopelessly drawn to each other. The plan, however, is still the plan, and the adjusters try a different tactic with David this time around, they let him in on the future.
Elise is a dancer, and the adjusters give David a shot at choosing the plan. If he doesn’t see her again, they tell him, he will go on to win several more elections, not just for Senator, and she will become one of the most famous dancers in the world. If they stay together, she will end up teaching six year-olds. David lets her go.
There is ultimately more in store for you, as the pair meet again and the chase is on to try and outdo the adjusters, but it is at this point that the film has actually done its job. In a fantastically fun and entertaining effort, the free will question has now been thrown at you several different ways, and all without really saying anything. If you’re given a choice, the adjusters can “see” how you will decide, which is how they are so good at tweaking events. They can read the causal chain standing in front of them to such a degree that they know what you will do. Where’s the free will in that?
Moreover, The Chairman has decided that, at this point in history anyway, people don’t have free will. At least, not in the big picture. Things are going to be decided for us, and if we can’t nudge you enough, we’ll just alter your mind until that’s the choice you’ll make anyway. Now, David has his own run at life’s greatest question. The Chairman, after all, is just making decisions that alter the way our lives will work out based on what he decides is in our own best interests. Is that wrong? Why doesn’t it seem wrong when David decides what life is best for Elise?
There are no answers in The Adjustment Bureau, not because it’s only questions that are actually interesting, but because, as in life, there aren’t really any questions either. Things just happen, and you are left to do with them what you will. There are a lot of great things you can say about the film in the usual, technical categories, but they lose their importance in a magnificent way here. Damon and Blunt are wonderful. The crisp pace is well-designed, and the overall presentation is put together better than the vast majority of efforts you run into. In this case, the ability to revel in these things is trumped by the fact that they only serve to create an enjoyable and entertaining expression of thought.
The best thing you can say about the film is that it understands films in the way Philip K. Dick understood science-fiction, but no one really cares about that, and it certainly doesn’t have its own award. It is a film that dares to believe that there are people interested in yarns about the complexities of life. It is also one that not only doesn’t care to do anything beyond vaguely wondering at you, but has no great interest in your response, or potential lack thereof. Moving ultimately over the final hurdle toward brilliance, it’s so slick, engaging, and filled with energy, that it’s questions don’t need to be tackled in order to fall in love with it.
In the end, in the midst of all the mind-control, “adjusting,” and sci-fi schemes, there is an entire universe in the moment when David decides to make choices that change more than his life alone, and there’s nothing otherworldly about it. We do it everyday.
There are quite a few bonuses you get with the release, some more interesting than others, but it makes for quite a package. There are several deleted scenes, none of which are exactly fascinating, and they aren’t the sort of things that would change anything. There are several featurettes, most of the usual sort.
The Labyrinth of Doors: Interactive Map of New York jumps you around through various locations of the film, and gives you some of the filming effort at each place. You’ve got behind-the-scenes footage, and general showcasing of the scenes. It’s a fun enough little bonus, and altogether gives you some 30 minutes of video, but it only goes so far.
Destined to Be is a very quick run through of the film, which is actually a more unusual bonus. It’s hard to say how much viewers will enjoy this quick jaunt through the film’s story, but it’s put together well.
A couple of others walk you through shooting in New York generally, and Emily Blunt’s dance training. They are both only a few minutes long, and are at best fluffy bits of fun.
There is also a commentary track by writer/director Nolfi, and it’s easily the best bonus you’re getting. It sticks to form for the most part, but he gives an interesting take on many aspects of the film, including what is and isn’t shown, and why.