The particular brand of unhinged paranoia of which Phillip K. Dick was a master, and then some, gets a respectful treatment in THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, based on one of Dick’s short stories. It takes the warm and fuzzy notion that someone or something is keeping the universe creaking along according to a plan, as opposed to the terrifying notion of complete randomness, and gives is a spin that makes it just sinister enough to make for an intriguing tale. In this case, it is hat-wearing men (mostly) in black. Envisioned by Dick as corporate types, they bustle through the human world of Manhattan via doors that dont follow the laws of Newtonian physics, nudging people and events into conforming to The Master Plan, a plan that while the final word on events, is itself subject to modification by The Chairman.
Its also subject to the disruptive ripple effects when something goes wrong, as in the case of David Norris (Matt Damon), a good guy from the working class with the drive and the charisma to rise, per The Plan, to the White House. One the eve of his election to the Senate, though, a skeleton from his past emerges, quashing his otherwise all-but-certain victory. At his lowest point, with the election returns resoundingly against him, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt) under less that portentous circumstances. He is practicing his concession speech in the mens room, and shes hiding there after getting caught crashing a ritzy wedding. They have an immediate attraction, but more, they also have an intense emotional connection. A forbidden one, again per The Plan, but one that only grows more intense when one of the corporate types, Mr. Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) fails to make David spill his coffee at the appointed time. David catches the bus to his new job instead of missing it, runs into Elise, and gets her phone number but not her last name. When he arrives at work it is to the disconcerting discovery that the office folk are frozen mid-motion, and, those corporate hat-wearing types are doing something odd to his new business partner.
The moment of revelation has arrived. According to The Plan, as explained by Mr. Richardson (John Slattery as the soul of corporate cog-dom), Elise will prevent David from becoming President because shw will make him content with what he has. Elise will never become a superstar innovator of modern dance for the same reason. Though it become obvious that while Mr. Richardson and the others have powers not granted to mere mortals, they dont know the reasons behind the reasons. Mr. Richardson also not forthcoming about who they are, except to say that theyve been called angels from time to time. Hes very forthcoming, though, about what will happen to David if he ever tells anyone what hes seen: his mind will be wiped clean. His friends will think hes gone crazy, which is probably what would happen anyway if David started telling them that the world is being controlled by unseen angels in fedoras. It will also mean calling in Mr. Thompsen (a dispassionately creepy Terrence Stamp)
The idea of free will is handled with a mysteriously tantalizing complexity throughout. If the landscape is not as bleak as in many Dick stories, there is no skimping of the notion that none of us is able to really be or do what we want. From Davids parsing of how his appearance, down to the proper amount of scuffing of his shoes, is dictated by consultants trying to ingratiate him with the most voters, to whether or not the disruption of The Plan isnt part of a larger one, there is the sticky notion that all is not what it seems. In fact, most of it isnt. Why exactly was Mr. Mitchell, suffering a job burn-out of millennial proportions and wonderfully realized with a wistful tenderness by Mackie, late for his appointment with Davids coffee? Added to that is the heaping sense of weltschemerz experienced by the adjustors themselves, carping over plum assignments and burning out over their middle-men status of carrying out orders but not being privy to the whys of it all.
The direction is crisp, the love story that takes center stage compelling with its attractive, strong-willed couple, and that snazzy trick of walking through a door in downtown Manhattan and exiting at the base of the Statue of Liberty is cool. Focusing on that romance is a very smart decision, raising the stakes in a time-honored fashion with a couple that is savvy, clever, and not at all a certain thing, given the manipulation being used against them. Damons innate boyish charm is used to excellent advantage as the ambitious politician with an admirable moral compass and a streak of romanticism. Blunt is intelligent, tough-minded, and completely credible as a dancer as ambitious as her paramour. The chemistry is less sexual, though they dont lack that, than it is a meeting of souls.
As a philosophical dialectic masquerading as a thriller, THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU works on many levels, and equally well on each of them. This is a film that demands that both heart and mind be engaged at all times.