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Movie Review: The Adjustment Bureau

Well-acted 'Bureau' needs many adjustments
The Adjustment Bureau
Running Time: 106 min
Release Date: 2011-03-04
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By "Lawrence Toppman"
The Charlotte Observer

The official message of “The Adjustment Bureau” is that love conquers all.

The unofficial message is that God does a pretty decent job of running the universe, but “he or she” (to quote an angel in the film) needs to be straightened out from time to time by humans who know what’s better for them.

The movie comes from veteran writer and novice director George Nolfi, who adapted the Philip K. Dick story “Adjustment Team.”

Nolfi changed not only the title but the setting, characters, outcome and entire point of the story. He made it more sentimental, less terse and less believable, even as science fiction. And like most adaptors of Dick’s shorter work in the three decades since the author’s death, he runs out of steam too soon.

Matt Damon plays David Norris, who meets self-assured dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) on the night he loses a Senate election. She inspires him to drop self-pity and make a political comeback, but he loses track of her for three years. The day they reunite, again by chance, Norris accidentally learns that a divine plan kept them apart: Their second meeting was never supposed to happen.

In the coming months, he encounters three members of The Adjustment Bureau: melancholy Thompson (Terence Stamp), officious Richardson (John Slattery) and kindly Harry (Anthony Mackie). They inform him that his continual attempts to bond with Elise are throwing the universe out of whack. If they marry, neither he nor she can ever achieve glorious destinies as a politician and a dancer-choreographer. They can have love or greatness, not both.

I feel cheated when a film gets me emotionally invested in a choice requiring sacrifices, then presents a third ending at the last minute that’s likely to get every character off the hook. This is such a movie. So despite fine acting and swift pacing and well-managed effects, it falls apart.

But even if you like much of the story (and I did), the muddled theology is baffling. God isn’t omniscient, because he – I use that pronoun for simplicity – can be thwarted by chance and must alter plans.

He isn’t omnipresent, nor are his angels: They move rapidly from place to place only if they wear magic hats, and they can’t eavesdrop on humans who are surrounded by water. In fact, God can’t even fix a simple problem: He can’t let David and Emily both have satisfying destinies at the same time if they’re in love. (Why not? No answer.)

We’re told that God ran the world for centuries after Jesus died, then gave humans free will, then took the reins again after the Middle Ages, then gave us control in 1910, then decided in the 1960s we didn’t deserve to have it and got back in the driver’s seat. (God is responsible for al-Qaida?)

The ultimate message is this: Most of us live in blissful ignorance of the fact that someone higher up controls our lives. But we can achieve free will, if we risk everything to prove we deserve it.

And as my head spun around like that girl’s in “The Exorcist,” I thought, “If I’d wanted a tepid knockoff of ‘The Matrix,’ I could have rented its sequels.”

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3/2/2011 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman

Well acted and shot, but a hopeless philosophical and theological mishmash.

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