The Adjustment Bureau: Matt Damon’s Battle of the Angels

George Nolfi's up-and-down movie, The Adjustment Bureau, sees two lovers who fight the system to forge their own destiny together after they determine the random occurrences in life aren't so random

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Universal Pictures / Everett Collection

From Left: John Slattery, Anthony Mackie, Matt Damon and Andrew Schwartz in The Adjustment Bureau

You do — or don’t — answer the phone, read an email, go to a party, catch the bus. If any one of these seemingly insignificant events were to go the other way, the story of your life — perhaps the history of the planet — might have a different twist. And what if all random occurrences were actually part of some divine or nefarious plan? That’s the premise of Philip K. Dick’s 1954 story “Adjustment Team” and of George Nolfi’s up-and-down movie version, The Adjustment Bureau, with Matt Damon and Emily Blunt as lovers who fight the system to forge their own destiny together. It’s a clever idea that, around the mid-point, stumbles into absurdity as the movie itself makes too many lunatic choices.

David Norris (Damon) is that rare politician, a salt-of-the-earth idealist with tremendous charm and no spouse, cohabitant or apparent sex life. He seems on the verge of winning the New York Senate election when the New York Post runs a photo of David’s exposed butt in a mooning escapade from his college days. Alone in a hotel men’s room on election night, he is preparing his concession speech when he detects a noise in one of the stalls. It’s a woman, Elise Sellas (Blunt), who strikes up a quick friendship, shares a kiss and inspires David to deliver a charismatic public confession that makes him a front-runner in the next Presidential race. Gee, what luck he happened to run into Elise. Or may we call it Elysian design?

She disappears and it is by the merest chance that he sees her on a city bus. Chasing her but not catching up, he’s late to work; the place is deserted except for some busy gents in suits. Turns out they’re, well, angels — members of the Adjustment Bureau, a sort of seraphic sanitation squad that oversees and controls the meager lives of humans. “We’re the people who make sure things happen according to plan,” says the chief of this detail, Richardson (Mad Men‘s John Slattery, treating David with the mandarin contempt that Roger Sterling pours all over poor oily Pete). “You saw behind a curtain you didn’t know existed.” David promises not to reveal what he saw, until his memory of Elise overcomes his caution. He might be a brother to the Paul Rudd character in James L. Brooks’s How Do You Know, who believes that “We are just one small adjustment away from making our lives work.” David’s adjustment is to buck the Adjustment Bureau and escape with Elise. They might be Orpheus and Eurydice, running for their lives and their destinies through the Underworld, Otherworld or Bizarro World.

The Dick original paints a darker portrait of those watching over us. Ed Fletcher is a realtor, not so happily married to Ruth. Getting to work a little late one morning. finds his office building, and his colleagues inside, petrified in crumbly dust, only the adjustors are at work on Ed’s floor. When he returns an hour later to find the building intact and his coworkers as they were — except for certain tiny details. (“They had all been remolded, recast — Endless, subtle changes.”) He thinks he’s going mad, until he takes a celestial elevator to Adjustment Team and gets the skinny from the Old Man. For the good of the world, the deity says, Ed’s boss needed to close a big contract for Canadian forest land; and that required a refitting of the boss. Ed wasn’t supposed to see any of this, but one of the adjustors literally fell asleep on the job. Ed swears he’ll keep the secret, won’t even tell his wife Ruth. To make sure, the team sends one of its staff to “adjust” Ruth — to vacuum her brain.

(See a brief history of movie special effects.)

The notion of one person or one little incident having a seismic ripple effect has filled many college cafeterias with nerdy debates on chance, free will and butterflies. The springboard of It’s a Wonderful Life, it also inspired Alan Ayckbourn to write his 1983 play cycle Intimate Exchanges, in which the decision to have or not have a cigarette leads to two, then four, then eight and 16 variant scenes. (Alain Resnais filmed most of the cycle in 1993 as Smoking/No Smoking.) In Dick’s lavish imagination, Fate was so complicated a thing to manage that it required a vast bureaucracy, with all the fussiness, interoffice rivalries and occasional screw-ups of any large enterprise employing the kind of Organization Men who wear suits and fedoras to work.

No utopian, Dick saw Ed’s inadvertent intervention in the grand scheme as an accidental crime that would have to be punished. But Nolfi, making his directorial debut after working on scripts for the Damon movies Oceans Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum, goes the dewy-eyed romantic route here. By reimagining the supernatural bureaucracy as a legion to be not surrendered to but outsmarted and outrun, he plays to the strength of Damon, whose franchise character is Jason “One-Man-Against-the-System” Bourne, and whose signature post-Bourne persona is the mild-mannered obsessive, pursuing his own angels and demons — in Green Zone, The Informant!, Hereafter and here. In The Adjustment BureauDavid shouts the battle cry of Damon heroes: “I don’t care what you put in my way, I’m not giving up!”

The Adjustment Bureau is one of those movies — like The Matrix and Inception, but not in their league — that has to keep explaining its complicated and shifting rules. (“Turn the knob this way to enter another realm” — “They have trouble finding you when it rains.”) That’s fine for the advanced levels of video games, not so much for film narratives that at their climax should tighten rather than expand. In its final chase scene, The Adjustment Bureau gets a severe attack of travelogorrhea, as David and Elise show up at the Museum of Modern Art and, in an eye-blink, at Yankee Stadium. (On the plus side, New York City looks great, as if all of the Bureau’s minions had been sprucing it up for months. The restaurants, cobblestones and sewers of downtown Manhattan were never so enticing. And I say that not simply because one rainy chase scene was shot in the alley behind my apartment building.)

(See New York City in photographs.)

Nolfi also gets a tad woozy with the cosmology he’s invented. The Bureau must employ more monitors than Walmart, since, to judge from David’s case, each human has a dozen or so minders. They’ve also had great lapses of capriciousness over the span of human history. We learn that the angels stepped back and let mankind rule its own destiny for only two periods: the millennium between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance — that was an awfully long vacation, guys — and for the 50 years between the hatching of World War I and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But that half-century also produced the golden age of Hollywood movies and the Great American Song Book, so I’d say it’s pretty much a wash. The adjustors have been our guardians since the mid-’60s; but, really, has the progress of world events been so very splendid? Didn’t the Bureau take its eye off Africa and the Mideast? Or was it simply consumed with micromanaging David’s fate that it didn’t notice the genocide and terrorists?

None of this will matter if you buy the romance at the movie’s core. I didn’t. Damon is fine — righteous, sweet but not soft, a true liberal hero — but he has greater rapport, however edgy, with his angel adversaries (Slattery, Anthony Mackie and Terence Stamp). Blunt, the beautiful English creature from My Summer of Love, Dan in Real Life and The Young Victoria, wears frocks that make her shoulders look of linebacker dimensions; and thought she does flirting really well, her Emily didn’t convince me she was David’s indelible soulmate.

Of course David and Emily, and the angels too, are at the mercy of their own adjustor, Nolfi. Like the string-pullers who, the movie says, determine our destinies, he runs theirs. And like the angels, he sometimes makes mistakes. A good premise wasted, this film needed another big brain to save it from its third-act excesses. Could somebody appeal to the Screenwriters Bureau?