Life Is An Adjustment Bureau

Life Is An Adjustment Bureau

Static Mass Rating: 4/5THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU

Original UK release: March 4th 2011
Certificate (UK): 12A
Running Time: 106 Minutes

Writer & Director: George Nolfi

Cast: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, Terence Stamp, John Slattery, Michael Kelly


Movies based on work by Philip K. Dick are listed on the official Philip K. Dick site.

Vintage print of Dick’s Adjustment Team

What are the chances of meeting someone twice, if you really want to — by chance? Very slim to nil, at least if you live in New York City and have only a first name to go by. You need a lot of persistence, wit and fate on your side. Not an easy enterprise if there’s a conspiracy to tamper with your destiny. After watching The Adjustment Bureau, you might bite your tongue before saying “change of plans”, the more so when something unexpected happens.

I’m not a fan of on-screen romances but the film did a pretty good job at adjusting my aversion to affairs of the happens-only-in-the-movies kind. The Adjustment Bureau tells a gripping story about love at first sight, its chances against all odds and, quite simply, the imponderabilia of life.

It’s loosely based on a short story by Philip K. Dick — one of many the sci-fi author wrote in 1954. His Adjustment Team is not an obvious example for the typical Dickean existentialism, gloom and paranoia, nor does it open the abysmal depths of a multi-layered narrative which is adored by many fans of Dick.

Hence I didn’t expect a Blade Runner (1982), a Minority Report (2002) or A Scanner Darkly (2006); these are Dick adaptations that are far stronger in our memories than his many stories that haven’t made it on the big screen. To me it sometimes looks like Dick has been typecast, leading to firm expectations and preconceptions which is unfortunate.

Dick’s Adjustment Team as well as the movie adaptation plays with a single, ironic paradox: our choice whether or not to accept fate — which also puts an interesting spin on the issue of free will. In that, along with the “agents of fate” and a few other elements, the film is true to Dick’s story and its idea. The plot itself, however, is a modern tale of two people meant for each other but kept apart by circumstance, or in this case the “Chairman” of The Adjustment Bureau.

Having just lost the election for a seat in the U.S. Senate, down-to-earth politician David Norris (Matt Damon) meets Elise (Emily Blunt), a contemporary ballet dancer. Although they instantly fall for each other, fate doesn’t seem to be on their side. In fact, David is caught and cautioned by the agents of The Adjustment Bureau who are doing everything in their power to keep him and Elise apart. David can either let her go and accept his destiny, or take on the somewhat superhuman fate makers.

To say any more would probably give too much of the plot away. As a romantic thriller, The Adjustment Bureau is more about the sacrifices people are willing to make for true love rather than a claptrap on the plight of destiny. I enjoyed its low-key suspense and that the filmmakers didn’t over-dramatise or force a philosophy of sorts upon the plot. The movie has something to say but there is no blatant message — a plus given that free will and fate are still more a matter of belief rather than well-founded dispute.

There are some strong statements though (You have no free will, David, you only have the appearance of free will…) however, they’re uttered so casually or even with sarcasm that I didn’t feel overly lectured. The “adjustment attempt” is facilitated by “magic” hats and doors – a subliminal take on the bizarre maze the human mind can be, also catching the comical undertone in the original story.

That said, the odd metaphysical soft spot (especially in the second half) could serve as proof that literally everything gets adjusted at some point, even if it’s the story itself. It’s a little pity the final act didn’t hold the tension The Adjustment Bureau was slowly building up — a decent finale but not the dramatic climax I was anticipating.

The Adjustment BureauThe Adjustment BureauThe Adjustment Bureau

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Cinematography and performances are excellent, above all Blunt and Damon — soul mates with an incredible chemistry who, even without fate adjustment, would have trouble to decide between family and career, as they are both strong personalities with a “destiny” of their own.

In the end I had no choice but to wonder if we all have an “adjustment bureau” in our heads, and if our options are actually numbered. Then again, it doesn’t really matter whether or not there’s a “bigger plan”. In Dickean terms, plans always change, and fate might never be more than one step ahead of us.

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