Are we free to make our own choices, or is someone/something controlling are guiding them? This is an age-old question, perhaps because the human mind struggles to wrap itself around either the idea of blind chance or the immense power of free will. Surely something/someone else is involved, somehow. Loosely based on a paranoid Philip K. Dick short story, “The Adjustment Bureau” takes on this question, through the lens of a…romantic comedy?
Well, not a comedy exactly, though the plot elements here are most often found in romcoms. Matt Damon is an ambitious and rising young politician. Emily Blunt is a talented ballet/modern dancer. They are totally wrong for each other, except, of course, for that…spark, that something that makes them want to be with nobody but each other. The chemistry between Damon and Blunt is better than average; it’s pretty fun to watch them flirt. But then descend a bunch of men in fedoras, who do whatever it takes to keep them apart, because that’s the way fate would have it.
You can pretty much boil down most romantic comedies to a meet-cute, a series of apparent coincidences and twists of fate designed by the writers to keep the two leads apart for a certain period of time, and then a climactic turning point in the final twenty minutes or so when fate changes its mind and allows them to be together. This is exactly the way “The Adjustment Bureau” plays, except the writers actually appear in the film and the characters are allowed to talk to them. It’s as if Tom Hanks is able to stop in the middle of ”Sleepless in Seattle” and ask the writers why the heck they won’t let him get with Meg Ryan already.
Except that “The Adjustment Bureau” doesn’t play for laughs; I guess if you know you’re living out the plot of a romcom, it’s not funny to you. There’s a lot of rushing around, dodging the men in hats, screaming about fate, etc. It’s terribly serious business, trying to make your own decisions. It’s too bad, because the best parts of “Adjustment Bureau” are when Damon and Blunt are allowed to relax around each other. That’s hard to do when you’re being chased by supernatural beings.
Because “Bureau” purports, at least vaguely, to be about God and Fate and sovereignty and such, it has a few questions to answer that romcoms don’t. Consider a moment between Terrence Stamp (a chief Fedora) and Damon. Stamp tells Damon, in no uncertain terms, that he can marry Blunt, and they will have a good life. But he will never be President, and she will never fulfill her dream of becoming a famous dancer. This is why the Fedoras are determined to keep them apart; so that they can fulfill their potential and be Great People. Now what kind of god (or “Chairman” as the film calls him/her/it) is writing this Plan? He chooses achievement over happiness for his people, dooming them to successful careers as miserable people. Damon walks away from Blunt, afraid of killing her dreams by staying with her. But isn’t it better to be a happily married ballet teacher than a lonely, miserable prima donna? These are the kinds of questions “Adjustment Bureau” doesn’t feel at all ready to acknowledge, let alone answer.