Adjust Expectations for The Adjustment Bureau

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Of the different stories that get told within the realm of science fiction, my favorite ones are the ones that deal with extraordinary things happening to ordinary people. This was the case in Donnie Darko (Virginia teenager dealing with strange visions, time travel, and parallel universes) and Knowing (college professor trying to stave off the apocalypse), two of my all-time favorite films.  I always keep an eye out for these types of films, and it’s the main reason I was so interested in seeing The Adjustment Bureau. Like Donnie Darko and Knowing, The Adjustment Bureau starts off simply enough: David Norris (Matt Damon) is standing in an empty hotel restroom, collecting his thoughts before delivering a concession speech in the wake of a failed bid for one of New York’s U.S. Senate seats. David gets quite a surprise when he discovers that he’s not alone in the restroom, as a woman emerges from her hiding place in one of the stalls. Her name is Elise (Emily Blunt) and she’s hiding from hotel security after crashing a wedding on one of the other floors. She soon realizes who David is and is surprised to hear that he lost the election, remarking how appealing his everyman persona was during the campaign.

The banter between the two is light and playful. There’s a spark between them, and they’re undeniably attracted to one another. Their encounter ends in a steamy embrace, broken up only when David’s campaign manager, Charlie (Michael Kelly), walks in on them. Before Elise dashes away from hotel security, David is able to get her name, but not her number.

Spurred by Elise’s remark about how appealing his everyman persona was, David forgoes the carefully prepared concession speech that was intended for him at his press conference. Instead, he humorously rails against the artificiality that had seeped into his campaign, from the high-priced consultants who recommended what kinds of ties he should wear to the consultants who suggested how scuffed-up his shoes should look. Though the rant makes Charlie nervous, it turns out to be a big hit, reinforcing David’s everyman persona and positioning him as a frontrunner in the next election cycle.

But the current cycle is over, and the next day David heads to the office building where he’ll be working at a regular job with Charlie. Little does David know, however, that his morning commute is being watched by a group of mysterious men. Dressed in fine suits and bowler hats, the group dispatches its youngest member, Harry (Anthony Mackie), to intercept David in the park that’s along his commute. Harry is instructed to make sure that coffee gets spilled on David, delaying his commute by 10 minutes.  To that end, Harry ventures into the park and takes up residence on a bench until David arrives. However, when David passes through the park, Harry has fallen asleep and David boards the bus that the group intended for him to miss. Harry eventually realizes his mistake and chases after the bus, but to no avail.

David looks for a seat on the bus and is thrilled when he notices that Elise is also on the bus, sleeping by a window. He takes a seat next to her and they’re soon interacting with the same familiar, flirty rapport as the night before. This time when they part ways, David walks away with Elise’s phone number.

David is ecstatic when he gets to work and immediately starts looking for Charlie so he can tell him the good news. But when David eventually finds Charlie, he happens upon a strange sight – Charlie is standing in a boardroom with some other people and they’re all motionless, as if frozen in time, and are surrounded by a team of men who are wearing odd, Hazmat-like suits and wielding unusual devices that they’re using to scan them with. David is flabbergasted. Within seconds, the men spot David and they chase after him.

Despite his best efforts, the men catch David and he loses consciousness. When he comes to, he’s sitting in a chair in the middle of a warehouse, surrounded by the mysterious men who were watching him earlier. They’re adjustors, members of the Adjustment Bureau, David learns, in charge of making sure that things on Earth go according to the master plan laid-out by their boss, the Chairman. The problem is that David wasn’t supposed to meet Elise on the bus earlier that day. But thanks to Harry’s mistake, he did. Considering that David caught the Bureau in the act of trying to fix Harry’s mistake when he arrived at work, they decide to level with him about what’s going on. Simply put: meeting Elise the night before was intended, as her comments inspired his much-loved rant, but meeting her on the bus that morning was not.

The Bureau orders David to forget about Elise; they even go so far as to burn the card she gave him with her name and number on it. Furthermore, the Bureau warns David that if he mentions their existence to anybody, they will promptly lobotomize him.  With that threat issued, the Bureau returns David to his office building and things return to normal.

But things can’t return to normal. David is spellbound by Elise. And at this point the film’s dilemma becomes clear – should David abide by the wishes of the Adjustment Bureau, and trust in the path laid-out for him by the Chairman? Or should he pursue Elise, the girl of his dreams, and forge his own future?

Luckily for the viewer, David opts for the latter.

The Adjustment Bureau was not the film I expected it to be. It’s primarily a romance, and less concerned with the theme of chance and how it impacts who we meet (or don’t meet) and affects our lives on a daily basis. This disappointed me. I feel like the opportunity was there for writer/director George Nolfi to say some interesting things about chance and he didn’t take it. In my opinion, this holds The Adjustment Bureau back from reaching the same heights as Donnie Darko and Knowing. Whereas those films say interesting things about, respectively, faith and chaos vs. determinism, The Adjustment Bureau makes no such comments about chance, apart from the fact that it’s a big part of our lives (duh).

Nolfi’s treatment of the Adjustment Bureau itself is one of the problems. He handles that set of characters so frankly that by the time the film is done they possess about as much intrigue as employees at the DMV. That’s honestly how Nolfi portrays them.  They’re just people doing a job, making quips about working late hours and pay grades, like any other laborers would. And that sucks, considering how much the mystery surrounding Frank the Bunny Rabbit in Donnie Darko and the “whisper people” in Knowing is tied to what makes those films transcendent.

That the Adjustment Bureau isn’t that extraordinary is what precludes the film, as much as anything, from being a memorable installment in the “extraordinary things happening to ordinary people” sci-fi subgenre.

While The Adjustment Bureau may not have lived up to my expectations, it is a solid romance, and the success or failure of the film hinges on the credibility of Damon and Blunt as a couple. Pursuing Elise is what David does for the balance of the film … and if the performances don’t convey the “soulmate” quality of their relationship (as the writing does) it would be difficult for the audience to invest in David’s pursuit of Elise, because she just wouldn’t seem worth it.

However, Damon and Blunt have amazing chemistry. Elise is written as a witty character, and Blunt’s timing in delivering the humorous, flirtatious dialogue that defines Elise is razor-sharp. Any girl I’ve ever been attracted to has possessed that quality, where it felt like she kept me on my toes. That’s how Elise and David’s relationship is. And Blunt plays the role to perfection. If acting really is reacting, then Damon must’ve had a great time reacting to Blunt in this film.

As for Damon, if “intensity” is the word that best describes what Leonardo DiCaprio brings to a role, “earnestness” would be the word to describe what Damon brings to one. DiCaprio’s intensity comes from how seriously he takes every role, and it’s generally an asset. I don’t doubt that Damon takes his roles seriously, too, but he’s always a little more dialed-back in his performances than DiCaprio is. Though this may preclude Damon from achieving the livewire transcendence that DiCaprio does, he manages to come across just as committed to his roles as DiCaprio is, without verging on overacting like DiCaprio is prone to (the one drawback to his intensity).

Damon’s earnestness is on full-display here. He plays David as being devoted to making things work with Elise, even in the face of the adjustors’ menace. And even during those brief intervals where the adjustors manage to convince David that Elise isn’t worth pursuing, he inevitably starts pursuing her again. It’s a credit to Damon and the strength of the underlying commitment that he imbues David with that this reversal always feels believable. David is just too committed to Elise to let anything stand in his way – even the Adjustment Bureau itself.

Ultimately, The Adjustment Bureau is a good romance with good performances by Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. But considering what it could’ve been, that’s just not good enough.

Illustration by Derek Wilson