For a good science fiction short story, you only need a good idea. A simply drawn character or two and a small conflict that highlights your idea is enough for perfection. A feature film, on the other hand, has grander and heavier conventions — a protagonist, a life-altering conflict, and preferably a visual and moral theme running through it. It’s harder to make a perfect feature film than a short story... as illustrated by The Adjustment Bureau.
The Adjustment Bureau is adapted from Philip K. Dick’s The Adjustment Team. It’s written and directed by George Nolfi, who notably contributed to a Bourne screenplay and an Ocean’s screenplay, both starring Matt Damon.
Here, Damon plays David Norris, a career politician who loses an election after the press runs an embarrassing picture from his college days. On the night of his concession speech he meets a sympathetic dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt). The next day he meets her again on a bus, and they hit it off.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to The Adjustment Bureau. Think of them as angels working for Fate. Their job is to keep things on Earth moving according to Plan. And their plan for Norris was that he should never meet Elise again. But agent Harry (Anthony Mackie) overslept on the morning after the speech, so Norris caught his bus after all; Norris met Elise again, and the Plan was ruined. Also, Norris arrived at his office too early and witnessed the Adjustors — now in their hazmat suits — tinkering with his colleagues who have been frozen in time.
For most people, discovering the existence of angels controlling our lives would be the most important thing that happened that day, and indeed it was for the protagonist in Dick’s short story. Here, Nolfi makes the supernatural discovery secondary to the love story. That’s a daring choice, and it has worked in fantasy romance movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and What Dreams May Come. But it feels like the wrong emphasis here. Damon and Blunt are both good-looking, charming people, but there’s not a lot of chemistry between them. They don’t seem so much attracted to each other as thrown together by Fate... or in this case, the visible hand of the screenwriter.
The Adjustment Bureau has some good ideas about inexpensive style. The angels all wear hats, and they dress like film noir gumshoes. There’s a supernatural transit laid over New York City that uses nothing but doors — a neat trick that any film student could pull off. The only thing that looks expensive is the star, the city, and some of the crowds.
I think The Adjustment Bureau would have benefitted from an even smaller budget and an even leaner style — something that really embraced the limitations and spurred more creativity. As it is, the movie feels like the poorer cousin to Inception.