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Andrew Schwartz/Universal Studios

The Adjustment Bureau

Movies

Issue: "The rise of localism," March 12, 2011

When the protagonist in Philip K. Dick's short story Adjustment Team walks in on the operatives who are "adjusting" the world to fit a cosmic plan, he stumbles into a world where the people and buildings have crumbled into sand and ash. It suggests that this is not just a minor tweaking in the world's workings but something more sinister and profound. In the Hollywood version, however, The Adjustment Bureau loses the terror and drama by injecting romance and rejecting Dick's original point of human helplessness.

Matt Damon is charming as David Norris, the young, charismatic politician who meets Elise (Emily Blunt) when he's about to give his concession speech in a race that he lost due to a last-minute blunder. She lends him the courage to go off script and give an electrifying speech that immediately places him as the frontrunner in the next New York Senate race. He spends months searching for her until their paths cross once more. But when he finds her, he unwittingly tampers with the scheduled course of his life and uncovers the Adjustment Bureau-the men who implement the cosmic plan of a mysterious and omnipotent Chairman. And Elise, David finds, is not part of his plan.

David's love for Elise is supposed to drive his desire to change the plan, but the romance is unconvincing. Their second conversation, the one that cements Norris' love, doesn't go deeper than the usual forgettable flirtation that prompts girls to give guys their numbers and not really care if the guys call them back. The viewer remains unconvinced that Elise and David must stay together but also unconvinced of the reasons to keep them apart.

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The film (rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality, and a violent image) asks, Do we decide our own future or does an unseen hand direct our days? Director George Nolfi told me this theme came from his fascination with the problem of evil and the way it intersects with questions of determinism and free will. You can't discuss either "without foundering on the problem of evil," Nolfi said, adding that if any religion had the perfect answer to these questions then everyone would hold that religion.

The question of free will is a thorny one, but the film hews so closely to the middle ground that its answer seems to try to please everyone: Some things are predetermined, others are left to chance, and occasionally you can choose for yourself. The treatment of evil is cursory. (Bureaucrats are cold and nasty, but make unconvincing villains.)

The Chairman becomes the character who is closest to a villain and also closest to a god. In the short story he is portrayed as an old man who cows the protagonist into shutting up and going along with the plan. In The Adjustment Bureau, the couple is not allowed to directly plead their case before a Chairman who remains a shadow and rules the world with an impersonal hand.

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