Free will is a tricky business, especially the way The Adjustment Bureau has it. This new romantic-comedy-action-fantasy would clearly like to leave you pondering grand questions about the very nature of existence. You know: how much control do you have over your own life, and what part does destiny play?
Unfortunately, due to some oddball devices in the plot, I was instead bogged down in mere technical concerns, like whether God is powerless to help us when we’re at sea.
You see, “the Chairman” (as the film calls the being responsible for managing the entire universe) has dispatched “case workers” (angels — without wings, but with magical hats) to keep humanity moving according to his carefully choreographed plan. We humans have free will when it comes to decisions like what to eat for dinner, or what to wear to work, but the agents of the Adjustment Bureau are secretly all around to ensure that we stay on the track that’s been projected for our lives. They can see into our minds to anticipate decisions that we’ve made and erect obstacles to put us back on our predetermined course.
Except, that is, when there’s a lot of water around. For some reason they can’t tell what we’re up to when we’re surrounded by water. This would seem to be a terrible inconvenience in monitoring a species that lives on a planet with a surface that’s 70 percent H2O. Think of the great naval exploration or battles over which the Chairman could exert little influence. Wouldn’t that mean that the sea is where our free will is freest? No wonder then that Melville’s Ishmael fled from the land whenever it became a “damp, drizzly November” in his soul. (Though perhaps my shark-fearing wife is also right, and the ocean is a nightmarish hell-scape of amoral evolutionary warfare.)
See, I’m already far off track. I’ve not pondered whether I would make the same brave decisions as the film’s lead characters. David Norris (Matt Damon), a former Congressman, accidentally discovers the hidden world of the Adjustment Bureau and is forced to choose between the political future that’s been preordained as his and the love of a woman (Emily Blunt).
The movie, loosely based on a Philip K. Dick short story, briefly considers a truly difficult dilemma that each of us must address in the course of our lives. It suggests that most of us don’t bother coming up with a solution. We just follow the path of least resistance, the one that the Chairman has surreptitiously laid out for us. Perhaps that’s true. It’s worth discussion. But there’s not time for that now: I’ve got to explain those magical hats.
Their fedoras are what give the case workers (John Slattery and Anthony Mackie play the two most prominent in David’s life) the ability to enter a network of magic doors that provide shortcuts throughout New York City (and presumably the rest of the world as well). A human who wears one of the hats can do the same, but the doorknob must be turned clockwise, not counterclockwise, in order to make it work. If David hopes to defy the Chairman, he’s got to memorize his way through a labyrinth of hallways and doorways to seize the life he’s choosing for himself. But he’ll have to wait for a heavy rainstorm, of course. That way the case workers won’t be able to see what he’s up to.
All of this makes for a fun, mad dash of a film that takes its own premise lightly and is well served by charming performances. I only wish there’d been a de-cluttering of the technicalities of the plot, with a bit more time spent on the ideas provoked by the story and a little less on bothering to structure obscure rules that might allow David to win the game.