The joke of the 1954 short story “The Adjustment Team” is that a frustrated working-class guy learns, by an easily preventable screw-up, that the architects of existence are basically just as henpecked and clueless as he is, and just as likely to make the kinds of infuriatingly tedious mistakes that we frequently associate with workers at an elephantine corporation or bureaucracy. The story, like a number of sci-fi works of the time (such as those by Harlan Ellison) flirts with the notion that God is, at best, an indifferent delegator, or, at worst, some sort of mad man who is all too representative of man’s fallacies. “The Adjustment Team” is dry, funny, and sort of casually hopeless—in other words, a typical Philip K. Dick story.
The film adaptation, retitled The Adjustment Bureau, keeps the story’s conceit of heaven as yet another corporation with inescapably convoluted reasoning and practices, discarding almost everything else. Filmmaker George Nolfi expands Dick’s punchline, conceiving the Adjustment Bureau as befuddled meddlers preoccupied with the same trivialities that torment most of us. Like many of us, the bureau’s members desperately angle for promotions, usually at the expense of any reasonable curiosity as to what their job actually entails. Most are merely cogs in an ever-elusive machine, barely more cognoscente of life’s mysteries than the humans—proof that the goddamned nine-to-five structure that imprisons most of us was fated.
Nolfi addresses this notion slyly, using the Adjustment Bureau as an especially otherworldly narrative obstruction for a pair of lovers who find themselves on the lam. The film lightly parodies that frustration that spurs us to secretly believe, especially in regard to our love lives, that some force is openly conspiring against us. New York Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon) learns, through a screw-up that similarly kicked off the short story, that these suspicions and frustrations are quite founded. After a humiliation has cost him a bid for State Senate, Norris retreats to a swank hotel bathroom to recite the affirming clichés that he’s to deliver as his final speech in his campaign. After some time, David is startled by Elise (Emily Blunt), a dancer who ducked into the john to elude pursuers after her for crashing a wedding.
The film is about a man so hopelessly in love with a woman that he’s willing to go up against God to have her. The Bureau, represented (impressively) by Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, and Terence Stamp, inform David that Elise isn’t for him, that a romance between them will dangerously alter some destined path with which they, personally, are clearly unaware. David, however, despite being presented with a rather dissuasive ultimatum, can’t cast Elise aside, as he briefly experienced with her one of those jolts of emotional recognition and connection that the terminally lonely assume to be mythical.
While The Adjustment Bureau lacks the craziness, the sexiness, that could make for a loony classic (such as the similarly themed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), it’s still reassuringly human, and the film’s modesty, while potentially holding the material back, is also strangely appealing. Nolfi, in this era in which few American filmmakers seemingly deign to make a simple entertainment, is refreshingly laidback; he doesn’t push the material in your face. The film has a casual sadness that accumulates in force over the course of the running time, with the comedy, which is dry and fleeting, reaffirming the sense of loss and desperation.
Quite a bit of the film’s quiet punch can be attributed to Matt Damon, who gives one of those disciplined performances that’s destined to be under-acknowledged by people who like their actors to highlight their every exertion. Damon’s work is heartbreaking, and truthful, because he acknowledges something that a more indulgent actor might miss: that David has accepted his social isolation as matter of fact, as a cross he sometimes forgets he’s bearing, and, for that, you believe his shock at meeting someone that stirs him. Damon, a better and more concise actor with virtually every passing year, imbues the sci-fi chase construct with human urgency.
Blunt isn’t quite as good, but then again, the role of the “free spirit” can be awfully thankless, as it usually calls for women to be gorgeous and fashionably eccentric and little more. But Blunt, one of the more painfully beautiful women in contemporary movies, certainly has the ineffable “other” quality that makes for ideal movie dream girls, and her comic timing—superb in The Devil Wears Prada—is occasionally allowed to reveal itself here. And it can be said that the actress certainly fulfills her most important function in this film: It isn’t difficult at all to believe that Blunt might inspire a man to look God’s personal businessmen straight in the eyes and say, “Give it your best shot.”
The film has a simple elegant look, and the transfer is appropriately unassuming and beautiful. The grays and whites, consciously lit to evoke a fusion of the past and present New York City of our dreams, are crystal clear and properly contrasted. The sound mix effectively balances the subtle details, like the click of a pen or the crushing of a coffee cup, with the score and the louder action beats, such as a taxi crashing into a car. Not a show-off package, which suits the modesty of the film.
The audio commentary by George Nolfi is rather dull, as it often slips into that monotony that finds the filmmaker pointing out obvious details of a scene that we can see for ourselves. Nolfi also has a tendency to repeat himself, as I lost count as to how many times he voices his ambition to blend the varying genres of the film into a tonally coherent whole. The deleted scenes are mostly comprised of the usual nips and tucks (do any casual consumers actually watch most deleted scenes?), but there's a prolonged moment with David watching Elise dance that could've maybe remained in the film, as it allows us to appreciate his reverie for her. Two of the featurettes are more engaging than expected: "Leaping Through New York" is a succinct and informative look at the location scouting and special-effects work that went into making the film, while "Becoming Elise" briefly highlights Emily Blunt's training for the dancing portion of her role. The other featurette, "Destined to Be," is your typical talking-head puff piece that you might come across on HBO or Entertainment Tonight.
An appropriately modest presentation of one of the year's most unexpectedly charming movies.