Before I watched 2011’s The Adjustment Bureau, I had concerns. A tale of a secret cabal covertly adjusting society at key pressure points in service of an enigmatic “Plan” seemed at risk of tripping conspiracy theory alarm bells, at a time when the fun has been taken out of conspiracies. But the tack the film (adapted from Philip K. Dick’s short story) takes is to code these adjustments as much more personal. Ballet dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) and senatorial candidate David Norris (Matt Damon) cannot be together… because the Plan says so.
Making it personal saves the premise from too many pesky big-picture questions (though given David’s track toward a Planned Presidency, a cameo by future Presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg as himself raises an eyebrow). It also makes the emotions land, as this roller coaster of a thriller lays its track to catharsis.
There is silliness inherent in the premise of dapper uncanny agents shaping events. Look no further than water being a semi-arbitrary damper on Bureau agents’ abilities. Water? I’m reminded of Taraji P. Henson in Acrimony: “Crazy things happen to me in rain. Around water.” But that silliness passes an event horizon, crossing into 100% earnest commitment. Nowhere is that better embodied than in John Slattery’s great performance as Adjustment Bureau Agent Richardson. Slattery is spectacular in this, precisely because he doesn’t play it spectacular. It’s another day at the office for him. With the weary affect of middle management, he grounds the premise and makes it real.
Just contrast Richardson with his superior, Agent Thompson (Terence Stamp). Stamp’s stentorian tones portentously exposit that the Bureau engineered the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. (Rather like how in Batman Begins, Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul boasts that the League of Shadows sacked Rome, burned London to the ground, etc.) The character is passable, but more of a walking trope. It falls to his employees to effectively sell the movie’s ideas.
Some of those ideas are akin to The Matrix. Like the Wachowskis’ false computer reality which alters course with a spell of déjà vu, the Plan suddenly changes. But it’s uncommonly remembered that in The Matrix, the day is saved by love. Specifically, the fairy tale idea of true love’s kiss. And so it is in The Adjustment Bureau, just as hope seems lost.
The genre cocktail of the film includes science fiction, romance, and political thriller. Writer-director George Nolfi balances the ingredients extraordinarily well, and commits to the propulsive momentum of the best thrillers, but the emotional spark of life comes from Damon and Blunt, who have electric chemistry. The movie would be underpowered without it. With only minor flaws nipping at its heels, The Adjustment Bureau is a modern classic. This film, which is so full of rules, rules.