The Adjustment Bureau (review)

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Who Adjusts the Adjusters?

I met a fellow booklover recently who wrinkled her nose when I told her I read a lot of science fiction: she doesn’t like science fiction, she said, because she likes stories about people. It was all I could do to refrain from taking myself into a corner and banging my head against the wall in the most piteous way imaginable. I did try to explain that science fiction is about people, that it is, in some ways, more about people than mainstream fiction is, because the really really good science fiction is about what it means to be human.

My explanation was meant with a blank stare, of course — such is science fiction’s undeservedly poor reputation.
And then along comes The Adjustment Bureau, which is a beautiful example of what I mean when I say that science fiction is about exploring what it means to be human. It’s so effortlessly about what it means to be human that many people will insist that it cannot possibly be science fiction (or, to be more accurate, science fantasy). It’s so graceful in how it goes about finding the boundaries of humanity that those people who enjoy the sort of idiotic science fiction that is more about space battles and killer robots and nothing else — the kind of SF that causes other people to say they don’t like SF because it’s not about people — will insist, as well, that this movie isn’t science fiction.

They’re all wrong. It’s only when you step outside the margins of the world as we know it that you can truly test the limits of humanity, because it’s from that perspective that we can invent new limits for humanity. And man, does Bureau step outside the margins. David Norris (Matt Damon: True Grit, Hereafter) is a U.S. Congressman seemingly on the fast track to the Senate, and perhaps even beyond, when he inadvertently discovers, peering in on his life a shadowy group of — what to call them? agents? angels? — operatives who are minutely nudging things this way and that. They nudged ballet dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt: Gnomeo & Juliet, The Wolfman) in his direction at a moment when he needed her off-kilter influence the most… but though he’s instantly smitten with her, and she with him, her influence must be small and precisely calibrated so that Norris’s life stays on the prearranged track. David and Elise cannot be allowed to fall in love: that influence would be too large and too profound and would not move the universe in the direction is has been predetermined to move.

But predetermined by whom? Screenwriter George Nolfi (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Sentinel), also making his debut as director here, keeps us on our intellectual and emotional toes as he blithely bounces us around thorny philosophical koans — how would we know if we didn’t have free will? what is fate if it can be adjusted out of existence? — and lets us peek behind the scenes of the universe at the charming puppetmasters who pull the strings. (Anthony Mackie [Notorious, Eagle Eye] and John Slattery [Mad Men, Iron Man 2], as the two adjusters we spend the most time with, are not only natty dressers but at least as charismatic as they are sinister… which does, of course, add an extra layer of sinister.) For the heaviness of the film’s metaphysics, there is something ineffably light and charming about it, in the gentle humor of the bureaucracy behind loading the dice of the universe, and certainly in the romance that, of course, David and Elise pursue even in the face of the universe being out to get them. (Damon and Blunt are hugely appealing separately here, but much more so together: they have a tender, funny, sensual chemistry that usually eludes even those movies that are overtly intended to be love stories. As a wonderful side effect, this ends up being one of the better love stories Hollywood has given us in a long time.) If Frank Capra made The Matrix, it would be The Adjustment Bureau.

Nolfi is working, very loosely, from a short story by Philip K. Dick, legendary writer of very paranoid science fiction, but works his way around to a place that feels much more positive and much more warmly humanist than Dick ever did: you have to squint to find the humanism in Dick, but it is enthusiastically expansive here. Every moment in which it feels as if the film is succumbing to a very cynical portrait of individual happiness and humanity’s greater success — there are reasons, you see, good reasons, why the adjusters have had to step in and save us from ourselves, reasons it’s hard to argue with — becomes displaced by a larger perspective that comes as a sort of sigh of relief: Ah, you find yourself thinking, things may look bad, but there’s hope for us still.

Still, there are eerie questions left unresolved even as, say, the film thoroughly enthralls us with its depiction of the unseen world behind the world. (The chase sequence through the network of transdimensional doorways that caps the action is one of the most thrillingly cinematic things I’ve seen since, well, Inception, and rarely beyond that.) Is there a Chairman, or a Man Upstairs, as the film deems him, watching over things? How can his Plan change if he’s, you know, the Chairman? Are there Plans within Plans, adjusters adjusting the adjusters? Is it adjusters all the way down?

Not the sort of thinkbomb you expect from a Hollywood romantic drama.

Watch The Adjustment Bureau online using LOVEFiLM‘s streaming service.

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