In The Adjustment Bureau, Matt Damon plays a politician named David Norris who gets an accidental peak behind the veil of everyday reality. Right before making a big speech, he runs into an impulsive young lady named Elise in a hotel bathroom. She inspires him to throw his boring old speech out the window and do something off-the-cuff and utterly unforgettable. The speech is a hit, his political future seems assured-- and, we soon learn, Mysterious Forces never want him to see the young lady again. But he does, and before you can say "Dark City" he's being chased around Manhattan by strange guys in fedoras. (Apparently, if you cast John Slattery, you get to borrow freely from Mad Men's costume department.) They're agents-- don't call them angels!-- of a distant and unseen Chairman, who has devised a Plan for Norris, and indeed for the entire world. And those agents will stop at nothing to keep Norris from seeing his inamorata again.
As Gary Westfahl's review ("Philip K., Diminished") points out, The Adjustment Bureau is not so faithful to its source material. That's not, in and of itself, a bad thing: great films are often the result of unfaithfulness to source material. (Heck, look at Blade Runner-- or, more x-tremely, Total Recall!) It's what you do with those changes that matter. Westfahl points out how making the protagonist of the story an up-and-coming politician, rather than insignificant real estate man Ed Fletcher, changes the tone of the story. More disappointing for me is the fact that the film completely chucks out what I consider the centerpiece of the original story: a nightmarish sequence in which the protagonist sees the world around him collapsing into dust and ash. But so be it: that's the name of the adaptation game, right? You take what works, and you leave what doesn't, and maybe that scene just wouldn't have served what George Nolfi (Adjustment Bureau's writer/director) was going for.
So, what was he going for? Adjustment Bureau is rather clever, when it wants to be. I rather like how Norris plays out the proverbially oxymoronic "honest politician" part, the design of the would-be angels' Plan-tracking notebooks, the inventiveness of the early footchases. But all of this culminates in a conclusion that requires a mess of contrived, arbitrary rules; the angels can teleport, but only if they're wearing their magic hats! They're virtually omniscient-- but not around water! (The latter rule implies that every naval battle in history threw humankind off-Plan, but that's another matter.) It starts to feel a bit... silly. Ever see Lady in the Water?
But, more centrally, more naggingly, the concept of God as "Chairman" just doesn't work here. It's one thing to posit a God who works through efficient means, and entirely another to posit God as an arch-bureaucrat, a beancounter of souls. This is far too simplistic a picture of divine providence-- and, moreover, it makes God into not just a foil for our self-determining protagonist, but an outright villain-by-proxy. Furthermore, Norris' rebellion ends up being too darned easy, on an ontological level. His decisions, once he steps outside the prescribed path, are no different than any impulsive decision you've ever made. The centrality of the Plan implies that every impulsive decision we make is predetermined. the story thus requires that Norris's impulsive decisions be ontologically different somehow-- but this never receives an adequate explanation. Sure, his adjustor napped on the job, but this does not sufficiently account for why his will somehow then becomes more free than everyone else's.
As for what that freedom is in aid of-- well, tying the "adjustment" that Norris's guardian agent messed up so directly to the Plan's ends serves to streamline the story a bit. In Dick's original the Plan is complex, and the fruits of the adjustment don't become apparent until long after the insignificant protagonist is out of the picture. But that's exactly the point: this is the smallest change possible to achieve some very, very big ends. But Norris, a rising star in national politics, is already part of the big picture, so these means don't end up looking quite so efficient. This doesn't elevate the everyday to cosmic significance-- quite the opposite, in fact. The folks in charge really are the ones that matter, and that's the way it must stay. The angel/agents show a callous disregard for the everyman-- just ask that cab driver who they just "adjusted" into a three-car wreck.
What Adjustment Bureau's characters, divine and otherwise, really care about is a Hollywood romance that doesn't make too much sense. By the end of the movie, we've seen very little reason why Elise should want to be with Norris; he's treated her like crap for much of their relationship, including abandoning her for months at a time, dumping her while she's in the hospital, etc. (Shades of Twilight here.) And yet, by the rules of romantic logic if not by the Plan, their relationship is destined, so their love must conquer all. If anyone is suffering from an absence of free will, it is these characters in the hands of their screenwriter. At the end of the film, when the Chairman-- spoiler alert!-- abolishes the Plan and hands the reins back to humankind, we haven't been given enough evidence to support believing it's a good thing. Sure, these two get to be together, hooray-credits-roll, but we've already been told that the last time this happened it led directly to the Holocaust. God may have declared this was all a test, but you have to question why he passed: all we've seen him do is make impulsive decisions, consequences be damned. As Jay Michaelson asks in his review for Religion Dispatches, is that really the path we should be leading ourselves down?
In any event, what the film has done by its conclusion is completely invert the attitude of the original story toward predetermination. By the end of "Adjustment Team," Dick's Ed Fletcher has come to a shaky acceptance that our world is controlled by incomprehensible forces. It's a bit like an optimistic Lovecraft story: Fletcher sees behind the veil, and is driven, not to insanity, but to a nervous but respectful understanding. Later in his life, Dick became an admirer of Nicolas Malebranche, a medieval theologian who saw God as the only true actor in every event in the universe: created reality, including human beings, is just a gathering of "occasions" for divine action. Adjustment Bureau just won't have it: its libertarian, if not Nietzschean, dedication to the individual will will brook no consideration of the Chairman's point of view, let alone a really omnipotent deity like that of Malebranche.
But enough of the big words: is it a good movie? I could say that it's better than I've just made it sound. But here's a more appropriate answer: I'm not at liberty to say...