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