'The Adjustment Bureau': 'Mad Men' Clothes Meet Retro Politics

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Matt Damon's latest film celebrates free will—for some people, anyway

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Universal Pictures


If one were to depict the new film The Adjustment Bureau as an arithmetic equation—and it would not surprise me if at some point in its development someone did—it would look something like this:

[Bullworth + Heaven Can Wait - (Warren Beatty x 2) + Matt Damon + Manic Pixie Dream Girl + Magical Negro] x (CliffsNotes to "The Grand Inquisitor" - religion + smooching)" x Mad Men retro chic x (Inception/4)

Written and directed by George Nolfi (who penned a sharp script for the last Bourne film and a dull one for the middle outing of the Ocean's Eleven crew), the romantic thriller stars Matt Damon as Rep. David Norris (D-NY), a dashing but headstrong young Senatorial candidate who, as the film opens, is losing the race thanks to a touchingly tame scandal. (He was photographed mooning classmates at a college reunion.) As David ponders his concession speech in a restroom at the Waldorf Astoria, a fetching lass (Emily Blunt) emerges from one of the stalls. She is, she explains, hiding out from hotel security after crashing a wedding on a whim. Sparks fly and lips are briefly locked before he is called to his speech and she to her escape. Soon after, they meet again, on a bus during his first commute to a new, post-candidacy job at a venture capital firm. Their mutual attraction again evident, she gives him a name, Elise, and a phone number.

From there, it's down the rabbit hole, as David accidentally stumbles upon a world beyond our own. Specifically, he encounters agents of the "Adjustment Bureau": angels, essentially—though with haloes replaced by fedoras—charged with keeping humankind on the straight and narrow. (They are led by Mad Men's John Slattery, with a sympathetic assist from The Hurt Locker's Anthony Mackie; later, a cranky Terence Stamp will join them. All are evidently accoutred by the same stylish mid-century tailor.) These celestial G-Men, who answer to "the Chairman," inform David that it is not part of the divine plan that he and Elise be together. To prove their power, they perform a variety of astonishing feats: stopping time, transporting through space, reading David's mind, and, most terrifying of all, burning up the business card on which Elise had left David her number.

Unable to contact his dream girl, a bereft David rides the same lonely bus for three years before finally glimpsing Elise again on the sidewalk. First date, take three—although this time with David aware that Supermen in Gray Flannel Suits will go to great lengths to ensure the presumed soul-mates do not wind up mated. And so it goes from there: David and Elise get together; Fate's (all-male) handmaidens pry them apart. Rinse, repeat.

The Adjustment Bureau is not a particularly bad movie, at least not by the two-foot yardstick we're expected to use on anything Hollywood releases prior to Thanksgiving. Damon and Blunt have a likeable romantic chemistry—no small thing these days—even if their relationship never moves much beyond the meet-cute, split-sad phase. And the film is eminently watchable in a glossy, untaxing way.

But to describe The Adjustment Bureau as preposterous is akin to calling ice cold or George Clooney good-looking. Rather than leave its mysterious happenings mysterious, the film falls prey to the Curse of Exposition, carefully walking us through the rulebook of its invented universe. It's a tendency that is wearisome enough in a meticulously constructed fantasy such as Inception; in a haphazard romp such as this, the boardgame metaphysics simply rub our noses in the underlying silliness. The near-omnipotent (yet oddly ineffectual) adjustment agents, for instance, lose their powers near concentrations of water, rendering them considerably less reliable on a rainy day than the postman. They are also unable to pass through the interdimensional portals that transport them instantly across New York City unless they are wearing, yes, their hats.

The movie's idleness with make-believe extends to the real world as well: David, elected to the House at 24, is repeatedly described as the youngest congressman in U.S. history—notwithstanding the tenure of William C. C. Claiborne, who is generally presumed to have been unconstitutionally underage when he assumed office in Tennessee in 1797. Similarly, David at one point explains to his lady love that he tried to find her via Google, but inputting "Elise" into the search engine resulted in a meant-to-be-enormous (but actually rather paltry-sounding) 757,000 hits. When I tried the same, I came up with over 31 million.

Perhaps most disappointing, though, are the movie's implicit sexual politics, which are as anachronistic as its haberdashery. Each time David and Elise are separated, he—and with him, the film—assumes that, unless he can track her down, he will never see her again. Yes, it's difficult to find a woman in New York City when you know nothing more about her than her first name. It's a relatively simple feat, though, to track down a celebrity Senate candidate. Yet despite the movie's portrayal of Elise as a tough, modern, play-by-her-own-rules gal, she never takes any initiative at all to reconnect with the love of her life, nor does it ever occur to anyone that she could. When David loses her phone number, she pines for three years; when he abandons her in a hospital without explanation, she waits, heartbroken, for 11 months more. This imbalance is made explicit at the end of the film, when a heavenly messenger commends David for his perseverance against all odds—against Fate itself!—and then commends Elise for, well, following him. The Adjustment Bureau presents itself as a paean to free will, to overcoming obstacles, to creating your own destiny—provided, that is, that you happen to be a dude.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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