“Everything happens because we make it happen.” This is the central philosophical notion of The Adjustment Bureau, and also arguably the biggest flaw of a film which milks everything it can out of an across-the-board stellar cast. The film’s theological underpinnings, drawn with something of a cavalier touch from a Phillip K. Dick story, are underserved by a tonal identity crisis; this movie can’t decide if it wants to be a meet-cute romantic drama, an ominous sci-fi flick or an existential examination of the nature of free will, so instead it shoots for all of these at the same time, to mixed returns.
David Norris (Matt Damon) is one of those rock-star professionals you only see in movies. In this case he’s a New York congressman with Senate aspirations who’s continually undercut by reckless, youthful behavior. In Damon’s hands this generic cutout of a character is roguishly charming, the sort of man who can talk himself into and out of anything just because he knows he can, and does so with a shit-eating grin on his face. When it becomes clear he’s going to fall short in the Senate race, he has a chance encounter with Elise (Emily Blunt) before delivering his concession speech. She inspires him, and he becomes hell-bent on reuniting with her. Their first encounter has a deft charm to it, buoyed by a consistently spot-on chemistry between Damon and Blunt.
The film carries on for its first 20 minutes as a serendipitous romance, until John Slattery and Anthony Mackie show up in fedoras and turn Bureau into cryptic science fiction, for a spell. As “agents” of the Adjustment Bureau, they inform David that meeting Elise was against his designated “plan,” and that to continue to pursue her is futile, for they will find ways to undercut him. What could (and arguably should) have happened here was a delving into the nature of an omnipotent power, and of how it’s potentially impossible to reason with a being that already made up its mind, and whether that mind is potentially fallible. That would’ve been heavily secular stuff for a mainstream release, but it would’ve been far more intriguing than what actually happens, which is to say a lot of David yelling about how he has choices and chase sequences that are handled by director George Nolfi with too generic of a touch to generate the necessary tension.
Thematic grievances aside for a moment, the film approaches greatness at times due solely to the performances. Blunt’s withering sarcasm makes for a perfect counterpoint to the brash David, and Mackie continues his run of excellent character work; the Hurt Locker star pulls off a delicate balance between the inherent cruelty of his job and his empathy for David, at least until the film turns him into a blatant deus ex machina verging on Magical Negro territory in the third act. Slattery is the perfect mixture of creepy and comic as David’s initial adjustor, and Terrence Stamp shows up briefly to deliver sheer quiet terror and gravity as only he can.
That aside, Bureau cuts off any chance of a rally it might’ve mustered with a limp third act, in which we get a lot of crescendo and very little climax. There’s the requisite Big Chase leading to the Big Moment of Confrontation, and a film that started to introduce a lot of tricky, interesting ideas instead settles for one of the tidiest endings fathomable. It’s true that everything that happens is by design, but like David, The Adjustment Bureau could have benefitted from a little more spontaneity.