The Adjustment Bureau: Losing One’s Free Will Has Never Looked So Charming

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Until The Adjustment Bureau sells out – philosophically, intellectually, conceptually – it’s a compelling yarn about the wool being peeled from one’s eyes, revealing the true nature of the universe, that “adjusters” constantly tweak our destinies to ensure we arrive at our predetermined destination.

In theory, it’s a spicy dose of existentialism, questioning the value of free will when making a decision cannot alter your trajectory. And in its original form, Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Adjustment Team,” one man’s discovery of his place in the predefined universe plays out as a tale of sacrifice; the adjusters, you see, are trying to ease Soviet tensions and avert a third world war, and Fletcher must keep his mouth shut about the true workings of the world, or risk destabilizing the planet. He alone ends the story aware of the game underway behind the scenes. (More at Techland: The Five Underrated Sci-Fi Masterpieces)

But all of that nuance and subtlety – and existential dread – has been sandblasted and whitewashed from this weekend’s new blockbuster. I can only guess it wasn’t part of the plan. Here’s a movie where a man learns about the predetermined universe and doesn’t once question the meaning of his own life. Indeed, one of the crucial scenes occurs atop a skyscraper, with the bad men in black hats closing in around him, and even though all his hopes and dreams are slipping through his fingers, never once does he consider the only act of free will allowed in a manufactured universe: Suicide.

No, that would be too dark for this Adjustment Bureau – effectively a Romeo and Juliet jaunt playing out against a sci-fi background. In Dick’s version of events, a husband learns of the Adjustment Agency and must sacrifice his own fantasy of free will in order to pave the way to safety for his planet on the brink of war. His ideals are shattered, but behind it all is a mythical organization ensuring that humanity doesn’t blow itself up.

In the new version, David’s (Matt Damon) plight is far more personal – less about the fate of the world or patriotic sacrifice than individual longing and obsession. Some will read this all as more hopeful and accessible; I found it more narcissistic and petty.

We meet David on election night – on the day of his biggest professional failure. He’s prepping his concession speech in a hotel bathroom when he discovers a drunk Elise (Emily Blunt) – a woman who’s just crashed a wedding (a Tuesday wedding apparently) elsewhere in the hotel. She doesn’t care much for politics, doesn’t ask about the election, but instead talks to him about life and dreams – reviving, in the process, a flurry of memories about why he got into this political game in the first place. (More at Techland: 18 Android Apps to Get You Started)

He goes on to give a frank, blunt, brilliant concession speech, reigniting his career in the process. All thanks to that random bout of bathroom flirting, which he later finds out was not so random after all: He was always going to meet Elise that night; it was part of the greater plan that he would use this smaller defeat to catapult himself eventually to the White House.

But that master plan goes belly up years later when a member of the Adjustment Bureau makes a mistake, and David winds up seeing Elise again. This second encounter – truly one of chance – reignites David’s feelings, leaving him obsessed and enthralled, and it’s their budding romance that starts to shatter the Adjustment Bureau’s perfect record. Even after they abduct and explain the nature of things to David, that he was never meant to fall for Elise, he still pursues her. This eventually leads to an all-out chase via foot and wormhole, as David tries to stay one step ahead of the Gods, chosing an uncertain love over a predefined fate.

Now I’m betting the film will appeal to a wider audience than some might expect. The chemistry between Damon and Blunt is spot-on, playing out in three primary conversations that arrive both sexy and spontaneous. This is the sort of witty, sexy flirting that is utterly believable; I, for one, buy that after these three titillating encounters with Elise, David would be smitten and all-in.

But why, then, didn’t director George Nolfi just set out to make a full-fledged romance? An inspired coupling tale with the smirking Damon and sultry Blunt at the helm? There’s a movie I’d see and relish in a second. But instead, as The Adjustment Bureau, all the sci-fi stuff about men in hats and trenchcoats dictating life on Earth clashes brutally with the lovey-dovey meet-cutes. The more David chooses Elise over his own political future – also sacrificing in the process her future career as a modern dance star, to satisfy his urges – the more time we waste away from the coupling, mired in the dystopic weeds. When David decides that he can outrun the Gods if he wants Elise badly enough, the story officially jumps the shark. Even as we root for the romantic guy, the sci-fi hero has lost his mind.

I won’t divulge the ending, but to say that it sells the underlying concept of the story short is an understatement. Much has been written about the film’s production delays, and I’m betting that time went to reconceiving an ending which may now register as more emotionally satisfying, but intellectually dishonest. If you compare this adaptation to the original McCoy, you find a complicated saga of personal sacrifice for the greater good disassembled and streamlined into a rosy-colored tribute to love reigning supreme. The Adjustment Bureau feels good, sure, but it also feels empty.

In this film about fate swallowing free will, our lead character never once has to seriously grapple with that trade-off or compromise. He wants his cake, and Nolfi allows him to eat it too. I cannot remember another film with such stark implications that sent me away this bubbly, or assured.