The Empty Balcony: The Adjustment Bureau, or, Angels Play Dirty

Mr. Dick has hit the silver screen again. The Adjustment Bureau, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, is a love story with a divine bent. Matt Damon plays David Norris, a young, very successful politician who discovers by accident that the world is not as it seems. Free will? No. There is none, unless one was to count the meaningless minutiae of daily life, such as what toothpaste to use in the morning. The big stuff, like wars and choosing the right insurance policy, is left up to ‘The Plan’ — a set of instructions for the direction of the entire human race penned by a mysterious figure called the Chairman. In the Chairman’s employ are an army of caseworkers who adjust the actions, and even impulses, of humans when they stray from THE PLAN.

This idea wants to be big, but I found it to be is pretty thin stuff. I have never read the original story, but I have read quite a bit of Dick’s work. He was a master of the mind-fuck, twisting his tales back and forth in nonsensical directions that leave the reader just as confused as his protagonists. Then, he would drag it all back at the last minute and it would all make sense. Except when it didn’t. But, especially in his novels, when Dick had the room to really play around, his method of storytelling was nothing less than a rollercoaster ride. There are real instances when his words can cause vertigo. He has always been a hard one to translate to film because little is laid out neatly in his work.

In The Adjustment Bureau, while the audience is never allowed to have a total grasp of The Plan and all its machinations, they are let in on enough to make the reasons not matter, and the mind-fuck evaporates.

Early on in the film, after a devastating election loss, David meets and falls hopelessly in love with a mysterious woman hiding out in a men’s room at the Waldorf-Astoria. She is Elise, played by Emily Blunt. Their meeting was supposed to be a one-time affair, over in a matter of minutes, according to The Plan, but David has other ideas. He decides to defy The Plan, sure in his heart that he and Elise are meant to be together. The caseworkers put obstacle after obstacle in front of him, but he always manages to evade them, mostly because he is aware of the existence of The Plan. But why does The Plan want to keep David and Elise apart? This is the moment I wrote about earlier, when the audience is allowed to look behind the curtain. Too much is revealed. The choice between David and Elise being together or staying apart is literally a choice between two people’s happiness and the fate of mankind. It’s far too strong a contrast to be maintained, especially when so much running time remains in the film. Once such a strong contrast is made, moreover, the details don’t matter, the mystery doesn’t matter, the very fact we are being toyed with by angels doesn’t matter. Black or white. Choose your color. Mind-fucks are grey.

The other problem with the film is the relationship between David and Elise, or the lack thereof. Their initial meetings are fleeting. When they finally do get a chance at romance, the audience is treated to one date. That is all we see of a romance that is supposed to drive the entire plot of the film. There just isn’t enough interplay between David and Elise for the audience to form the attachment necessary to root for them. True love is never as instant or as absolute as this film requires it to be.

Director George Nolfi and his team gave the film a clean, sharp, stylish look, taking much of its visual cues from Mad Men (the presence of John Slattery in suit and hat makes that comparison unavoidable), Inception, and even bits and pieces of The Matrix. It’s a film heavy on CGI, but in the new style, that is, as an enhancement of real environments, not a creator of fantasy lands. The film whiplashes to and fro among numerous locations in New York City, and these scenes are fun to watch. The set design is also superb. I see the city everyday, and I can tell you from personal experience that it does not look this good. There are spots where it does, but I’m not allowed into them.

There are areas, like the quality of the production, where the film succeeds. Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are both good, as are the supporting cast, which includes the stalwart Terence Stamp. Even the story, which I just killed, is fatally flawed in my opinion only. I think it would have benefited from less clear and unambiguously heavenly origins for The Plan. (While writing this, I had to decide whether or not to explain The Plan as I did in the first paragraph. I decided to do so only because the nature of The Plan is revealed with about 4/5ths of the movie left. Had it been held off until later, I would have treated the subject more ambiguously.) I would also have liked to see Damon and Blunt be given the time needed to make me care about their characters. What screen time was needed for this romance to flourish was instead taken up by foot chases. Those are the reasons I checked out of this film. The Adjustment Bureau is one of those films that can go any number of ways with a viewer. For me, it was middling.