Putting the Just in Adjustment

The Adjustment Bureau, like every third movie out of Hollywood these days, is based on a Philip K. Dick story I haven’t read (in this case “Adjustment Team”). I have to admit that the Great Dickening of our times baffles me a little: I like the PKD I’ve read, and I think The Man in the High Castle is genuinely great. But I never read something by him and say, “I have to rush out and buy and read and reread everything this guy has written NOW NOW NOW RIGHT NOW!” More evidence that the Zeitgeist and I aren’t on speaking terms, I guess. I never really got HPLolatry either.

I had no idea what The Adjustment Bureau was about before I went, and you may prefer to experience it in a similar state (if you haven’t already) so consider this a spoiler warning. But it’s a good movie: not dumb, intriguing, fast-paced, beautifully produced and acted, with something to say on the issue of free will vs. fate. That’s more than we can expect from Transformers 3. (Or Thor, for that matter, with its Norse gods inexplicably mouthing BBC-approved vowels.)


The lead character of The Adjustment Bureau (David Norris, played by Matt Damon) has his ass handed to him early in the movie, quite literally. His seemingly unstoppable campaign to be thenextsenatorfromthegreatstateofNewYork is derailed when photos surface of him drunkenly mooning his friends at a party. It was a little hard for me to believe that this would actually destroy a candidate who was well-liked by the electorate… and, in fact, it doesn’t finally. While composing a cliche-ridden concession speech in a men’s room, he meets a woman (which may or may not seem unlikely, depending on the men’s rooms you frequent, if any) who embarrasses him, freaks him out, gets him to admit that his victorious opponent is “a tool”, muckles with him like crazy for a few seconds and then rushes off chased by security guards (or are they?). This character (played by Emily Blunt) shows certain toxic traits of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in her first scene, but later scenes will acquit her of this serious charge. After this encounter, Norris walks out in front of the crowd and gives the best concession speech of all time, mocking the artificialities of modern political campaigns where even the scuffing on the candidate’s shoes is determined by focus groups and consultants. His naturalness renews the crowd’s enthusiasm for him as a candidate and the defeat proves only a setback, not a Waterloo. His political life will have a second act. This is all according to plan though Norris doesn’t know it.

Later, as Norris is settling into private life, he meets his not-a-Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl again on a bus. This is not according to plan. Furthermore, the bus he’s on takes him to work exactly on time, rather than ten minutes late. This is definitely not according to plan. In the office he finds everyone locked in a weird paralysis while a team of intruders operate on Norris’ best friend with some sort of mind-altering device.

I’ve never read “Adjustment Team” but I have read Leiber’s You’re All Alone (a high watermark of paranoia fiction, if you like that kind of thing), so I thought I knew what was going on here. I was wrong.

Ever hear the phrase “God has a plan for your life”? Evangelicals often use it. It’s supposed to be comforting, I think. But it sounds like Hell to me. Norris is trapped in the thickets of this plan. He’s left his ordained path and finds himself being forced back onto it by enforcers who refer to themselves as the Adjustment Bureau. The plan doesn’t allow for the hero to be reunited with his sweetheart, but he wants it to. (The plan’s agents don’t actually say that the plan comes from God; they just make it unambiguously obvious that it does.)

The rest of the movie is a struggle between the two lovers defending their love against the supernatural but not omnipotent forces of the Bureau, who defend the plan. It’s a Hollywood movie, so there’s a happy ending, but it’s not wholly unearned.

There’s a not-quite-review by Gary Westfahl here that charts some of a problematic Hollywoodized elements of the movie. Most problematic of all: the presence of a magical helper figure who’s black. This character is more like the divine messengers in old-fashioned movies like Here Comes Mr. Jordan (remade as Heaven Can Wait) or A Matter of Life and Death (a.k.a. Stairway to Heaven) than the stereotypical “Magical Negro”. But it hit near enough to the trope to make at least this “college-educated liberal” uncomfortable.

But I think Westfahl is wrong on a couple of points. For one thing, he seems to assume that PKD’s attitude toward God would be unambiguously hostile. I’m pretty sure this isn’t so: PKD was an Episcopalian, at least towards the end of his life. For another, GW oversimplifies what is already a simplified story. The members of the Adjustment Bureau are not, as Westfahl has it, “villains.” They’re surprisingly agreeable for people trying to destroy the heroes’ chance at love and happiness, particularly the middle-management type Richardson, played with entirely flappable charm by John Slattery.

I sense some ennui about this movie from genre-sophisticated types. (For instance, see an impatient and not-very-accurate review by the usually reliable Keith Phipps here.)

That may be a symptom of how rich the field of sf/f films has become in recent years. This is, after all, an A-list Hollywood movie, intelligently made, using paranoid fantasies to tell a coherent story about the problem of free will. It’s the kind of movie we always wanted Hollywood to make in the genre (as opposed to the mechanized rubber monsters of yesteryear). The filmmaker, George Nolfi (who directed and wrote the screenplay, as well getting a producer credit), deserves more kudos, less rubber-chicken.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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