Movie Review: The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
Summary: The affair between a politician and a ballerina is affected by mysterious forces keeping the lovers apart.
As this unfolds, he meets a ballerina, “Elise Sellas” (Emily Blunt), but is barred from seeing her by a secret society of inexplicably knowledgeable and powerful figures.
When Norris sees operatives of this mysterious association tampering with the minds of his co-workers, he finds himself on the run and pursued. When caught, he is sworn to secrecy with the threat of lobotomy if he ever speaks a word of what he has seen. He is further warned by a figurehead named “Richardson” (John Slattery) to keep away from Elise.
After the initial engagement from this life-altering experience, a member of the unnamed organization, “Harry Mitchell” (Anthony Mackie), reaches out to inform Norris that the organization he is dealing with is responsible for controlling all of the world’s affairs, for arranging and maintaining power balances, and for keeping things in order. Says Mitchell: “We are the people who make sure things happen according to planned.” People? Human beings? Well, the film does make us wonder a time or two.
From the organization’s higher ranking “Thompson” (Terence Stamp), Norris learns that this force has been in existence for many centuries, guiding and directing the affairs of mankind for its own preservation’s sake. It is then that Norris is informed that freewill has been tested in the past, but with poor results. For this reason, it is not allowed, which is why nearly all of the affairs of men are guided in accordance with a plan not unlike divine intervention.
The Adjustment Bureau is a schizophrenic’s nightmare brought to the big screen, or a UFO conspiratist’s reaffirmation of belief, depending on how you choose to see it. The film is inspired by the age-old myth of the illuminati, a union of the world’s rich and powerful behind-the-scenes movers and shakers, making changes as they see fit. But sometimes chance intervenes and they get found out. When that happens, you have to make “adjustments” in the plan, as is done with Norris.
This hour-and-a-half-long movie makes good use of its time and is an exceptional thriller, having a lot to say about its captivating premise on the nature and extent of perceived freewill. And indeed, it brings to light that to know your fate and then to fight against it would be both a menacing and unwanted conflict on a level that we can have no experience dealing with.
Much of the film’s friction is brought on not just by the organization, but also within Norris’ head. Norris is a man who is painted to be of exceptional ability, but occasionally set back by his bad and impulsive decisions. His family legacy littered with ambition-quelling disappointments, it is Norris’ greatest fear that he will fail to achieve what they died only hoping to see him fulfill. But when he learns that the reactionary ripples of his own life may tragically alter that of Elise’s, his maddening internal struggle is made all the worse.
How would you react if a mob of powerful strangers who could apparently read your mind came to you, subdued you, and forbad you from ever revealing their existence? How would you feel if they proceeded to tell you not to pursue being with the love of your life because the course of world events could be made worse in the process? How would your mind seek to manage the concerns of your own happiness vs. what is best for the greater good?
The Adjustment Bureau is a treatise on freewill that asks the question: Is mankind ready to properly manage the freewill she has allegedly been empowered with? And if so, at what point should freewill be taken from others to preserve what we understand to be the greater good? But the movie shovels our way more than its quota of troubling questions.
This organization, headed up by an unknown “chairman,” is responsible for managing all major world affairs, but through Mitchell’s own admission, lacks the manpower to make the task foolproof. This intrusive system of governance can be beaten. When Norris fights back and chooses to be with Elise as opposed to laying hold of his destiny to affect the world in politics, the game of cat and mouse begins, with Norris being detoured from interacting with her at every possible encounter.
As the situation heats up, we see these suited, hat-wearing, ominous figures of...extraterrestrial providence?...working against Norris, chasing him across streets and through buildings, manipulating traffic lights and cutting phone lines and power. It is at this point that the whole ordeal starts to become difficult to swallow as it stretches the limits of believability.
It is just difficult to overlook the fact that the plot seems to so closely resemble a schizophrenic’s delusion. The idea that any group or force could dispatch operatives to thwart the actions of one man with one woman is patently ludicrous, as is being disposed to predict with reasonable accuracy the decisions the two will make.
Whether you choose to consider the work of these beings other-worldly or not, who can blink in and out of situations in normal life, freeze time, and affect long chains of events and outcomes at will, it doesn’t change the fact that The Adjustment Bureau is incredibly well-paced, exciting, and emotively impactful, despite having that frustrating little habit of repeatedly raising more questions than it answers.
Damon maintains his impressive record of picking some winning scripts that captivate audiences. Emily Blunt, his chemistry-charged co-star, who we are seeing much more of these days, is no slouch, either.
Grade: B+ (3 ½ stars)
Rated: PG-13 (for brief strong language, some sexuality, and a violent image)
Director: George Nolfi
Starring: “David Norris” (Matt Damon), “Elise Sellas” (Emily Blunt), “Suburban Mom” (Lisa Thoreson), “Himself” (Chuck Scarborough), “Himself” (Jon Stewart), “Harry Mitchell” (Anthony Mackie), “Richardson” (John Slattery), “McCrady” (Anthony Ruivivar), “Herself” (Betty Liu), “Lauren,” Elise’s Best Friend (Jessica Lee Keller), “Donaldson” (Donnie Keshawarz), “Thompson” (Terence Stamp)
Genre: Romance / Sci-Fi / Thriller