I wanted to like The Adjustment Bureau. It’s got amiable leads in Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, a cool X-Files-meets-Mad-Men aesthetic, and — on a local note — its New York City locations are geographically consistent. And actually I liked the last hour of it OK.
But I almost turned it off before then, because the first 30 to 40 minutes of the movie asked me to believe things about the characters and their world that I had enormous difficulty believing.
The story depends on David Norris (Damon) and Elise Sellas (Blunt) being kept apart by the supernatural machinations of the adjusters after a chance second meeting. The adjusters take Elise’s cellphone number away from David and burn it, and later we see him sitting in a Red Hook BBQ, staring down at the part of her number he remembers and trying morosely to guess at the rest. He Googles “Elise” to no purpose, and one of the adjusters says he’ll never find her again — New York City is just too big.
Except … well, except a lot.
First of all, cities aren’t actually that big when you consider them as webs of human relationships. In reality, social circles are pretty small and overlap considerably. David’s a congressman turned venture capitalist, while Elise is an up-and-coming dancer. In New York City that’s not all that far apart — they probably aren’t separated by more than a couple of degrees.
Furthermore, David has technological tools at his disposal that the movie pretends don’t exist. As a former congressman and well-connected local pol, he could pull strings to find a list of cellphone numbers that match the partial number he has and the name “Elise.” Or failing that, how about Facebook? Elise would be a member — perhaps not in 2006, but certainly by 2010. You’re telling me an obsessed, lovestruck man can’t search Facebook for Elises in New York City and hit MORE a few times? He wouldn’t post a “missed connection” message on Craiglist? Take out an ad in the Voice? Stand along her bus route with a sign for a day or two? Really?
OK, maybe David can’t find Elise — but it’s impossible that Elise can’t find him. He’s a public figure — a telegenic former congressman who just had a Senate bid collapse. Assuming Elise reads New York magazine and/or can use Google, she’d have his office number in about two minutes. Are we really supposed to believe that she’s obsessed enough with him to break off an engagement, yet never takes a moment to get him on the phone, send him an email or write him a letter, if only to yell at him for being a swine?
The movie’s based on a Philip K. Dick story in which Damon’s character isn’t a Senate candidate, but a real-estate agent. That would have been a far better choice, for a couple of reasons. First off, it would have made the missed connection more plausible. (Alternately, when David does find Elise again, she could have recounted all the strange things that happened when she tried to contact him — evidence of the adjusters at work.) Secondly, making David a real-estate agent would have supported the more interesting movie that’s trying to fight out of the one we got.
At the core of The Adjustment Bureau is an intriguing question that could keep a table of twentysomethings arguing for hours at a bar or brunch: What would you do if you had to choose between realizing your dreams or being happy? If David forsakes Elise, he will become president, and she will become a world-famous choreographer — but he won’t be happy, and we gather that she won’t be either. But David’s choice isn’t as stark as it should be, because he’s already succeeded. If he were an ambitious Red Hook real-estate agent eyeing a run for City Council, his dilemma would be much more gripping, and we’d root for him more.
And what about Elise? The movie treats her like a passive object instead of a character in her own right. The story would be more interesting if Elise also knew the choice before them and saw things differently — at least at first — than David did. And what about Adrian, her luckless two-time fiance? Why not take a minute or two of screen time to give him a point of view? For the audience to invest in a story’s characters, they have to be more than marionettes — we have to be able to imagine what they’re doing when they’re not front and center, and we have to find those activities believable.
The Adjustment Bureau has other flaws — it ends with a preachy voice-over that spoon-feeds us a lesson we’ve figured out on our own, and it can’t decide whether the adjusters are implacable and all-powerful or slapstick company men. These flaws aren’t fatal — they’re outweighed by a good cast, style and an intriguing premise. But the movie’s biggest flaw is fatal: The audience is asked to suspend its disbelief over too wide a gulf, and so before the movie really gets going it creaks, splinters and falls.