Are you reading this of your own free will? Or are you reading this because you’re supposed to be reading it? If you weren’t reading this review, maybe you’d be making yourself a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. And then choking on it.
Or, you’d be getting coffee at the corner store, coffee that you’ll then spill on your computer, making it impossible for you to watch those special videos that you like later.
Oh noes! And if you do watch your videos later, is it because of your own free will? Or because you’re meant to, being guided by some unseen hand? A hand that apparently also likes kittens with bad grammar. Those naughty kittens.
These are the questions at the heart of The Adjustment Bureau, the sci-fi romance, and directorial debut of George Nolfi, better known as a screenwriter for The Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean’s Twelve. He wrote the script for The Adjustment Bureau (which is based on a Philip K. Dick short story, "The Adjustment Team") and decided to take a chance directing it as well, and he does a fine job. Apparently, this Princeton graduate has many talents. He did some graduate work in philosophy, which also shows in the film.
The basic outline is as follows: David Norris (Matt Damon) is a hot young politician, poised to make a big splash in the New York political scene, when he meets and falls for ballet dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt). Apparently, however, this romance was not meant to happen, and some guys in suits with really wonderful 1940s style fedora hats (aka the "Adjustment Bureau") show up to "adjust" things and make sure the future takes its prescribed form. It proves hard to keep these lovebirds apart though, and things start to go awry for the men-with-awesome-hats.
The romance between Norris and Sellas is certainly compelling and about two stories above any other recent romantic movie. Damon and Blunt have genuine chemistry, and that makes this a great date night film, especially perfect if you’re a sci-fi fan with a significant other who’s not as excited by Robert Kirkman, Klingon versions of Macbeth, Fraggles, or the special talents of Chuck Norris. There’s something to love for nerds and romantics.
Note that I’m making no gender assumptions. I grew up with a nerd mom and a dad who only watches romantic comedies, preferably ones that make him cry. Genre appeal is not gender based.
Part of the genre fun comes from the methods that those-with-great-headgear use to traverse the city. It turns out that various doors throughout New York City, if their knobs are turned in a certain way AND if you have an awesome hat on, open onto spaces that could not be predicted.
The courthouse bathroom door opens into Yankee stadium; a door in the stadium opens underneath the Statue of Liberty. This is fun, certainly, but it also reimagines the sometimes overwhelming, alienating space of the modern city as one full of secret, magical passageways, something negotiatable and even mystical for those in the know.
Two years ago, I went to the Modern Language Association conference in Philadelphia and saw a presentation on the urban pastime of parkour (a sport that seeks to traverse the city landscape with efficiency and creativity). The presenter argued that this sport allowed disaffected urban youth in France to feel a connection to their cities and to feel like a part of their communities, because they often felt otherwise alienated from their nation, politically and socially. There’s a bit of parkour, and a bit of China Mieville’s The City and The City, in this creative and even fantastical use of the urban landscape.
The film also has some moderate intellectual thrills to provide, namely in the free will and religion zones. We think we’re free—but how free are we' If someone up in the sky has a "plan" already laid out for us, then are we really choosing' Or do we only have the illusion of free will' There’s also a great deal of conversation about the "Chairman," a thinly veiled reference to God.
The men-of-stylish-headwear note that they’ve been called angels before, and this shows some similarities between these dudes and the men-with-hats on Fringe. There’s another, hidden world operating behind the scenes of our reality here, though it’s presented more as evil corporation than God and angels, the metaphors do a fair amount of mixing and mingling.
My husband said that the philosophical side of the movie felt rather like a late night "deep" conversation in a freshman dorm, and that seems about right. This is not truly hard-core philosophy, but it’s entertaining and reasonably interesting.
Certainly the philosophical depth of the film doesn’t compare to its cousin, 1984, another movie concerned with shadowy government forces breaking up a love relationship. This isn’t 1984, which is a good thing, if you’re looking for a date night film. This means that The Adjustment Bureau is not a great film, though it’s a pretty good one. 1984 has the courage of its convictions; it makes the reader uncomfortable by refusing the happy ending, leaving us mournful, angry, and fearful, wondering about the worst of ourselves. Could you hold onto love and faith, such comforting and beautiful abstractions, with hungry rats barreling down on your face? Or would you give up free will for the alternative comfort of Big Brother?
The Adjustment Bureau simplifies this choice; love, faith, and beauty win in the end, and there’s never any significant doubt that true love conquers all—even bad men with spectacular hats eventually bow before its throne.
So, I recommend you see the film. And I think you’ll enjoy it, though its echoes of 1984 only serve to remind this reviewer of the possibilities for real social commentary and personal soul-searching inherent in the best of science fiction, possibilities to which this film merely tips its ultimately less than awesome cap.