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Who's Running Your Life? The Adjustment Bureau Wants You to Know

  • Laura MacCorkle Senior Editor
  • 2011 2 Mar
Who's Running Your Life? <i>The Adjustment Bureau</i> Wants You to Know

In the movie poster and trailer for Universal Pictures' newest romantic thriller, The Adjustment Bureau, Matt Damon (True Grit, Hereafter) and Emily Blunt (Gnomeo & Juliet, Gulliver's Travels) are shown running. And running. And running some more.

But are they just burning extra calories here? Or is this cardio with a conscience? And are they pounding pavement with a purpose? We soon learn that they're running for their lives. Away from "fate personified" and toward the lives that they want to live—namely a life that involves each other.

As fate would have it, David Norris (Damon) and Elise Sellas (Blunt) first meet when they "bump" into each other in a men's restroom in The Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. David is preparing to give a concession speech as he has just lost his bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile, Elise, a contemporary ballet dancer, has decided to crash a wedding at the hotel that very same night. So she's hiding out from security and trying to keep quiet in one of the men's stalls.

But while a dejected David is pacing back and forth and rehearsing his speech, he hears a noise and the jig is up. "What are you doing in here?" he asks Elise when she reveals herself. Soon, after having a playful chat in front of the bank of restroom sinks, David's spirits are lifted and the two have seemingly fallen in love in about five minutes' time. But then David is whisked away by his campaign manager and best friend (Michael Kelly, Fair Game) to address the crowd waiting to hear his speech. How will he find Elise again? And when? Or rather, should he?

Time for an Adjustment

That's where The Adjustment Bureau comes in and the running soon begins. As mysterious as the film is about its overall message of fate versus free will, so is this entity of men in trench coats and fedoras who seem to have always been around, lurking here and there and monitoring David's life. But where did they come from and who or what is controlling them? David has never known of their existence until now that he's going off the grid and interrupting the flow chart mapped out in their case file for his life.

When David does "bump" into Elise again on a city bus shortly thereafter, the agents are put on the alert. He was never supposed to see her again. But Harry (Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker), David's case worker, missed making an important "adjustment" which would have delayed David so that he wouldn't have taken the bus on which Elise was then riding. But he wasn't delayed. So he did take the bus. And he did reconnect with her. And then ... uh oh. Better call The Adjustment Bureau.

"The crux of this is a love story," explains Damon. "The whole thing hinges on that. If you don't care about these characters and want them to be together, there's no movie."

The chemistry between the two award-winning leads was crucial in drawing viewers into the storyline, and it's something, says Blunt, that just can't be manufactured.

"I feel like chemistry's such a weird thing," she admits. "It's a strange, ethereal thing that I think you either have it or you don't. I think it genuinely helps when you like the person, because then the scenes can get really stretchy and you can play around and improv and throw a line in and see how far you'll go to make that person laugh. So it always felt very kind of alive doing a scene."

After running into each other again, the burgeoning couple are able to exchange contact information before the men in hats step in to try to "adjust" what's happening between David and Elise, who are even more invested in each other at this point—even after only two brief encounters. 

A little unbelievable, perhaps. But it's part of the intriguing setup that helps moviegoers invest in the story of two people who will literally run for their lives for the remainder of the film's running time—thanks to The Adjustment Bureau.

Run Humans, Run

But once these bureau agents make contact with David, he begins to see the inner workings of a bureaucracy that no other human usually sees. And what he witnesses in one scene is utterly terrifying, as he walks in on agents "adjusting" his campaign manager and fiddling with his memories which should result in getting David back on political track. The bureau has always had designs on him to one day become the President of the United States. However, if Elise stays in the picture, it would throw the plan out of whack as they were only supposed to meet just once.

Now that David knows of The Adjustment Bureau, now that he knows they're going to do whatever they can to keep him away from Elise and to keep him on the path that they want for his life, will he fight back? Will he "fight for his fate" as the movie's tagline encourages? Will he fight for Elise and for love? Or will he just let The Adjustment Bureau and its unseen "chairman" take over and resign himself to the life they've already planned out for him?

Rather than only antagonists, The Adjustment Bureau is seen by John Slattery (Iron Man 2), who plays Harry's bureau supervisor Richardson and is perhaps best known for his work on television's Mad Men, as guys who are just trying to do their jobs.

"The sort of group as a whole are the antagonists because they're the obstacle which creates the drama. [David and Elise] are in love with each other, and we're telling them you can't be together because we need you to be this person at the end of your life."

He also sees the unfolding drama to be a test. "How far will you take this? How passionate are you about what you want and what you need and the way your life should go?

"I find it hard to believe that we aren't the product of our decisions," he continues. "We're created with a spirituality and we exist with a spirituality and a set of ethics and a set of morals, and then we choose to exercise them or not."

The Man Upstairs?

As David's sympathetic case worker, Harry bends the rules at times in the film for personal reasons that he eventually reveals to the budding politician. But should he go against orders and help David "adjust" his life contrary to the plan that the "chairman" of The Adjustment Bureau has already purposed and set in motion?

In his own life, Mackie says he sees the "chairman" as something or someone less controlling and perhaps less menacing than depicted in The Adjustment Bureau.

"The chairman is just that innate voice in you that pushed you to the next level of your life," he says. "I think if we get into the idea of the chairman being above the clouds, reaching down initiating different things in our lives, we lose the point of our free will and the ability of our free will."

Throughout the course of The Adjustment Bureau, both those trying to control (the chairman or bureau agents) and those doing the running (humans) pose interesting questions about the meaning of life.

Is it a predetermined plan or free will that determines our life paths? Are we products of fate or of our own decisions? And who—or what—is really in charge of our lives anyway?

It's something that people of all creeds have grappled with for centuries. And Hollywood has weighed in from time to time before now (Minority Report and The Matrix trilogy, among others), but this latest offering is the first time the 1954 Philip K. Dick short story, Adjustment Team, has been adapted for film.

First-time director and veteran screenwriter George Nolfi (Ocean's TwelveThe Bourne Ultimatum) saw the source material as a great jumping point from which to ask some of life's biggest questions, but he was also careful—and intentional—in leaving the door open for individual moviegoers to come to their own conclusions as to who or what The Adjustment Bureau and the "chairman" represent in their lives.

"I kind of explicitly didn't make it a religious movie which is why it's the 'chairman' and they're 'agents of fate,'" explains Nolfi. "And they're not really angels, but case workers, because they're unanswerable questions. They're questions of faith literally. So for a movie that's going to go out to hundreds of millions of people, I wanted it to raise questions, and I don't want somebody to view it through the lens of my own belief system."

Indeed, viewers will be challenged as they watch The Adjustment Bureau to consider whether their lives are being run for them or if they are free to run their own courses. 

"Most people live life on the path we set for them, too afraid to explore any other," says Harry to David in the film's final scene.

"But once in a while people like you come along and knock down all the obstacles we put in your way. People who realize free will is a gift you never know how to use until you fight for it … I think that's the chairman's real plan. That maybe one day we won't write the plan, you will."

Starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly, and Terence Stamp,
The Adjustment Bureau is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image. It opens wide in theaters on March 4, 2011.

Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures.