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By James C. Hormel and Erin Martin

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Arts and Culture

‘The Adjustment Bureau’: Fate Accompli

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Posted on Mar 4, 2011
imdb.com

David Norris (Matt Damon, seated) faces off with Richardson (John Slattery, left) and other ominous suited individuals in “The Adjustment Bureau.”

By Richard Schickel

Free will is not a subject that comes up a lot in the movies—not, certainly, as the main topic of dramatic conversation. On the other hand, however, it could be argued that it is the hidden subject of almost every film. A man decides, for example, that he will oppose evil against all odds. Or a woman chooses one man over another for romantic entanglement. Or they jointly embrace an arduous adventure in search of riches or self-fulfillment or some other goal that will sustain our interest until the final fade-out.

One of the several pleasures that “The Adjustment Bureau” offers is the idea that our fates are controlled by a group of ordinary-looking people whose only task is to keep everyone on whatever path fate—unknown to them, of course—has ordained for them. If someone like, say, Matt Damon (playing David Norris, a politician with a mildly checkered past) challenges preordination by falling in love with someone he’s not supposed to (Emily Blunt’s Elise Sellas, a ballerina) it is the bureau’s duty to shepherd him back to straight-and-narrow predictability.

We know that’s not going to happen. For talk about fate—movies cannot afford to waste a cute meet likes theirs (it takes place in a hotel men’s room). They have to lose and find each other a couple of times before hooking up for good. This entails a good deal of running about in New York, as the bureau’s agents (led by John Slattery, the most sardonic of TV’s “Mad Men”) do their best to put true love asunder. The power of these guys appears to reside in headgear provided by the Ministry of Funny Hats, and, at first, their activities have a certain air of menace about them. But then the mood of the piece, written and directed with a certain easy grace by George Nolfi, rather gently and pleasingly shifts. It turns out that the adjustment bureaucrats—who are, as you have surely imagined, agents of a god-like entity—are rather benign figures. Mostly they just want to keep things tidy on the unstated, but palpable, grounds that we are all somewhat better off if we just kind of give up on the idea of doing whatever we please.

Which is not much fun. Human beings need to have a little confusion in their lives, if for no reason better than to supply it with a little suspense. And that’s what this movie—essentially a benign take on thriller conventions—cheerfully supplies. In its quiet and not inexpensive way, it is about as unexpected as a major studio production can be. Some of its amusing qualities can be attributed to the good nature of the playing by Damon and Blunt. The former is perhaps the busiest movie star we now have (this is his third release in the last four or five months) and the secret of his success, I think, lies in the way he does not force himself on us. There is an inherent good nature about him that we welcome gratefully. And as far as I’m concerned he can star in all the movies they are putting out these days. Blunt, of course, is less omnipresent, but she has a way of doing quirkiness that is charming and unforced.

I don’t want to make too much of “The Adjustment Bureau”; it is essentially a minor movie made on a fairly major budget. But I don’t want to make too little of it either. Maybe it is a little on the gimmicky side, but that gimmick is original and entertaining and, most important, genially subversive of all the hot and heavy conventions of the comic-romantic thriller. Who knew that an unlikely contemplation of free will could be such quietly ironic fun. Falling as the gentle rain from heaven—quite literally in this case—on the place beneath, where the supply of wry and intelligent wit is ever and always in short supply.


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By zoegoLightly, March 10, 2011 at 2:19 pm Link to this comment

I believe in fate and free will. Neither gives a complete picture. And I only have
my own experience of those ideas in my life, I don’t want to preach that I
actually know what’s going on at all. I do think there are certain events given to
us, even though at the time they may feel like disasters, I do believe that each
one, each disaster, each challenge is a gift from God. a blessing to help us in
some divinely guided way. I think my Mum dying when I was 14 was fate. It
changed my life in incredible, unimaginable and perfect ways. It led me to
search for something beyond the love that I missed from my Mum. Beyond the
love from another ... the love that we seek and desire from others ... it’s not
until i found the love for myself, the love for it all that I began to open my eyes.
I’ve studied now for 15 years and am completing my Doctorate of Spiritual
Science this year ... and what I can say is that the love in our hearts, and the
love in our minds and eyes does impact and affect and CHANGE our worlds.
This movie The Wayshower changed my world and also helped me to see that
perhaps there is even more spiritual assistance available to us ... imagine if we
had a ‘Wayshower’ someone on the other side helping us navigate, create and
course correct ... now that’s a movie that blew my mind.
http://thewayshower.com http://bit.ly/TWscreeningFGFF

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By mj, March 8, 2011 at 2:54 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

trite, stereotypical, fluff: total waste of $! date movie! who cares. Hate the “I’m telling you how to feel” sound track that Hollywood loves so much. Formulaic! another version of Inception, also a yawn.
except for the great scenes of NYC!

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By Pa, March 7, 2011 at 7:38 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why is truthdig reviewing this? Free will? Picking lovers is the easy part. Working 50
hours a week (anyone remember 9 to 5?) to stay off the streets and help pay for
world dominance and unimaginable wealth for the very few - are the angels
guiding us all?

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By iEbert, March 7, 2011 at 8:54 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

chickflick, yawwwwwn

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By Ben Karson, March 5, 2011 at 4:00 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Interesting that Philip K. Dick’s stories remain popular as movie material. The success in using the ideas in film varies a great deal.  “Bladerunner” is outstanding, in large part because it condenses Dick’s material.

In this case I’m going back to read the original Dick story in parallel with current movie reviews.

The Dickian story that I’d really like to see made into a movie is “If There Were No Benny Cemoli”, maybe changing the title to “All the News That’s Fit to Print”. Written in 1953, it resonates with a great deal happening now, from the Iraq War to Google News.  Plus it is pure Dick in terms of the ambiguity of what is real.

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By Anarcissie, March 5, 2011 at 12:57 pm Link to this comment

Looks like the comments are going to be a lot more fun than the movie or the review.

Meow!

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By elisalouisa, March 5, 2011 at 7:59 am Link to this comment

“with the fury of an aging female cat”

If we are going to be sexist about this how about a tomcat on the prowl.

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Gulam's avatar

By Gulam, March 5, 2011 at 12:29 am Link to this comment

Gerard, you know you can’t say “The Problem” or Inherit the Wind will jump on you
with the fury of an aging female cat for using an anti-Semitic pseudonym .

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By Alan, March 4, 2011 at 8:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Yes, well, okay, maybe the film has no fireballs in
it, that would commend it. But the premise is
rather lame, a Greek tragedy in internet time?
It’s another (no I haven’t seen it yet, but let me,
let me guess…) it’s another sugar coated
Rupert’s-Hollywood-pill.

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By gerard, March 4, 2011 at 7:36 pm Link to this comment

Don’t tell me the subsidiary characters (the men in suits) represent Conscience, Law, Religion, Reason and Tolerance.  Don’t tell me at the end that The Guy is still trying to decide what to do about The Problem.

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