It's one of the oldest questions we have asked ourselves since time began: Do we have free will, or are we part of some greater plan? How much are we driven by free will versus self-will? And if we are part of some greater plan, how much is determined by that plan, and are we really free?
2011's The Adjustment Bureau manages to ask those questions - and provoke some really great philosophical musings - under the guide of a romantic thriller.
You might be tempted to think of this film as another high-concept, multimillion dollar blockbuster - after all, it follows the recent trend of movies based on Phillip K. Dick's nature-of-reality literature, features two very attractive leads (Matt Damon and Emily Blunt) with an excellent on-screen chemistry, and manages to mix Mad Men retro-style with a photographer's sense of setting, using New York City as a great backdrop for the action.
But the tone of the movie - quite honestly - is a bit muted, and that's to the film's advantage. Writer/director George Nofti tells a small tale with larger stakes - a politician with a flair for self-sabotage (Damon) meets a striking, extremely charming young woman (Blunt) on the eve of a major political defeat. Thanks to a slight mishap involving a sort of "guardian angel" (Anthony Mackie), plans go awry as Damon learns that his involvement with Blunt defies a greater plan, sending the otherworldly "Adjustment Bureau" into action. Thankfully, all of the performances are scaled just right, with no one either overacting or underacting. (So much so that I half expected John Slattery to begin channeling Roger Sterling - it's to the film's credit that the actors allow the script to do most of the work, and none of the acting seems "phoned in")
If you watch this movie expecting tons of action, special effects, etc....well, you're not going to get it. It is tense, and does provide some great twists and turns (both in terms of plot as well as visual style), but ultimately, The Adjustment Bureau is a film of big ideas wrought small, and that's the film's primary strength. In its way, the film works much like television's The Prisoner, providing hints, clues, and suggestions that never totally pay off, but provide enough narrative drive to keep the story moving towards the climax.
I was quite honestly surprised by The Adjustment Bureau - I expected a romantic thriller with some science fiction elements which would serve to kill a short period of time. What I received was a smart, well-plotted thriller that provides some great intellectual content, yet somehow never forgets that its first goal is simply to entertain.
Well worth renting and watching. You'll be just as surprised as I was.