Film criticism by Ian Kay.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Review: “The Adjustment Bureau” (2011), dir. George Nolfi

I don’t know what the original Phillip K. Dick short story is like, but the screenplay for this thriller plays out like it was written by junior high boys with a handful of “cool ideas”. There is a schmaltzy romance, a tension bubble that deflates halfway through and more plot holes than I’ll be able to recount here.

There is promise in the first half hour. Matt Damon is as engaging as ever, and there are Hitchcockian hints at something sinister lurking around the bend. Damon plays David Norris, a relatively young and inexplicably successful New York politician. We are shown (in a montage of media reports) that he has quite a history of missteps, including drunken fist-fights. Yet he remains a favorite of the people, supposedly because of his good looks and “genuine” presentation.

Yet immediately before his expected election to the New York senate, his opposition releases a picture of Norris with his pants down, mooning someone in a bar. This latest act of immaturity is just too much for the voters to swallow, and it topples Norris’s ratings. He loses the election. As he rehearses his concession speech in the men’s restroom, he meets Elise, who is hiding from security (she had crashed a wedding). This is the only scene with actual chemistry between the two. She is mysterious and flirty, he is mesmerized and turned on. Elise, being the quirky, independent woman that she is, in the course of one conversation changes Norris’s outlook on the election and his life.

Fast forward a bit. Norris is now attempting to be a “normal guy”, starting a new job at a firm in the city. But of course Norris is not allowed to have a normal life. Mysterious men in 50’s-style suits and hats appear in the park near his apartment. They walk and speak like CIA operatives in the movies walk and speak. Norris is their target, for what we don’t know. As Norris goes to work, one of the operatives is given the assignment of making Norris spill coffee on himself, by “no later than 7:05”. However, in an enormous and preposterous twist of fate, the operative falls asleep, misses Norris as he passes, and cannot catch up to him before he boards a city bus. It is here that we first get an idea that these men are far more than they seem. The operative, trailing the bus, does something that seems to be nothing less than magic. Moving on.

This first scene with the mystery men (the Adjustment Bureau, of course) is a microcosm of the rest of the film. It leaves us with a feeling of hit-and-miss intrigue; these guys must be good if they have planned things down to the minute! And yet, how intimidating can they be if they literally fall asleep on the job? The first of many groans of disappointment.

The sleeping operative’s mistake allows Norris to arrive at his office too early. He walks through the door only to find what at first appears to be the cast of Madmen hanging out with security guards from the Death Star, large black helmets and all. These men are holding some kind of light producing device to his campaign manager’s face, doing God-knows-what to him.

Norris flees, and so the thriller really begins.  But Norris is easily caught. We see that their leader can seemingly cheat space and time by always appearing one step ahead of Norris. Norris is brought to a large room where the men decide what to do with him. He has seen them, so his memory must be adjusted. But wait, no. For some (unsatisfactory) reason, they decide that a “mind-wipe” would be too much. His mind would be completely empty afterward. So instead, they threaten him and make him promise not to tell. Groan. The interrogation scene is a crass bit of exposition that I assume the writer intended to serve as a foundation for suspense. Later on we discover that Norris’s campaign manager had a small mind-wipe done. He seems free of side-effects throughout the film. Why a short-term mind-wipe of Norris is impossible we are never told.

The men in the Bureau can stop time, but cannot keep up with Norris. They can manipulate tangible objects like cars to do their bidding, except for the bus that Norris is on. They can walk through rifts in space, unless of course they aren’t wearing their hats. I can go on pointing out the absurd and picking the story apart, but I won’t. It’s just not that interesting. Essentially, the Bureau does not want Norris and Elise to be together (romantically). We find out that there is a “Chairman”, who, although it is never stated plainly, is obviously supposed to be God. The Bureau are angels. And according to the Chairman’s “Plan”, Elise and Norris are not supposed to be together. Through many thin plot devices we are dragged until finally True Love (signified by a desperate kiss) resets the Chairman’s plan, and all is well. Gag.