For ten or fifteen years, people around the world have been playing something called "The Game," a psychological sport with three rules: 1) everyone's playing The Game, whether they like it or not, 2) thinking about The Game means losing The Game (we all just lost), and 3) every time you lose, you must announce, as I do now, "I lost the game."
The new paranoid thriller The Adjustment Bureau describes something called "The Plan," which in some ways resembles The Game. This free adaptation of Philip K. Dick's 1954 short story "Adjustment Team" posits a world in which extra-natural "adjusters" play social architect, making sure that the right things happen and the wrong don't, without the knowledge of everyday humans. Everyone's part of The Plan, whether they like it or not; thinking about The Plan means something has gone terribly wrong; but under no circumstances may one announce, "We're part of The Plan."
Matt Damon plays "bad boy" Congressman David Norris, freshly stymied in his bid for a Senate seat representing New York. A chance run-in with irreverent beauty Elise (Emily Blunt) inspires Norris to put authenticity before image: with a surprisingly honest concession speech, he wins new popularity. But who is that fedora-wearing man lurking in the vicinity? It's an adjuster named Harry (Anthony Mackie), tasked with keeping David and Elise apart in accordance with The Plan. When David accidentally becomes aware of The Plan, he becomes trapped in his head: how can life ever be the same, and how can he ever forget about the enchanting woman who changed his life?
Norris argues with the adjusters (who also include John Slattery and Terence Stamp) and ultimately rebels, trying to outwit his masters by finding and winning Elise. The adjusters have an advantage in a magical repurposing of doors as space portals (à la Time Bandits), but the fact that The Plan has, well, big plans for David also means he's not to be underestimated. His free-willpower, Brooklyn-bred street smarts, and power of persuasion even the odds.
As interpreted by first-time director George Nolfi (screenwriter of The Bourne Ultimatum), Dick's story transforms into an endearingly silly allegory of the mysterious interaction of free will and fate. The adjusters (who could be taken as angels) answer to a higher power known as "The Chairman," and these agents of fate justify their actions with history lessons about humanity's untrustworthiness and fortune-cookie wisdom like "Free will is a gift you'll never know how to use until you fight for it." What at first might seem like a God-talk movie (with more running) in fact comes closer to The Time-Traveler's Wife crossed with a Sophoclean tragedy.
Like Oedipus, David Norris contends with a (potentially tragic) flaw of impulsiveness and a compulsion to solve life's mystery. The adjusters' maze of doors becomes a labyrinth for a hero who must learn to follow the thread. But unlike Sophocles, Nolfi finally doesn't give equal weight to fate and our paradoxical enactment of it through our choices. Rather, in the vein of Rod Serling, The Adjustment Bureau does The Twist: for all its suggestion of our being slaves to fate, the lesson is not to waste our chances. Or as Oedipus might have put it, "Slaves to fate, my (swollen) foot!"
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]