The Adjustment Bureau (2011) and a Kinder, Gentler Alt-Noir Universe

adjustment bureau

*Spoiler Alert – I discuss key plot elements.

RE here:

The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi, 2011) is the latest Philip K. Dick "alt-noir universe" to be made into a major motion picture. Even before the film appeared in theaters, The Adjustment Bureau trailer was drenched in noir iconography (these filmmakers clearly love fedoras) and filled with noir-tinged dialogue like "you can't outrun fate." Audiences are already familiar with "universes" derived from the imagination of Philip K. Dick. His alt-noir universes have been vividly imagined in such films as Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, and Minority Report. An alt-noir universe blends and bends the conventions, iconography, and myths of science fiction with noir, creating a satisfying hybrid world. Moreover, there's a direct connection to noir's postwar period: Dick wrote the short story "The Adjustment Team" in 1954. The original story shares much in common with frequent noir themes such as the limits of free will and the capricious nature of fate, mixed with Red Scare-induced paranoia and xenophobia. Finally, Matt Damon is not playing a variant of his Bourne persona in The Adjustment Bureau. Indeed, Damon is a good choice for the lead character in an alt-noir film, having established his noir bona fides in The Talented Mr. Ripley (Minghella, 1999).

Watching the film, I was surprised how little in common it shared with other alt-noir films. Director George Nolfi maintains a careful and controlled distance from the darker aspects of the noir tradition—keeping his noir touches safely on the surface. This leads me to ask a larger question about big budget noir films in the second decade of the 21st century. Since 9/11, noir-influenced films have been a hot Hollywood commodity (think Christopher Nolan and his embrace of noir as "art blockbuster" as just one example). But I'm wondering whether or not we are seeing the most hard-boiled elements of recent noir storytelling cooling off, being displaced, or dissipating. There might even be a chronological similarity between the "ending" of the classic noir period and today's post-9/11 films noir. We are currently approaching a full decade since 9/11/01. By a similar accounting, 2011 may be considered equivalent to 1955/1956 in the classic period of film noir. All cycles eventually come to an end.

There is much I like about The Adjustment Bureau: its visual design, its acting, the supra-naturalism of its premise. But even before its final dénouement, I found myself more enamored of its style than its substance. After watching the film, I found myself in agreement with several reviewers who commented that director Nolfi didn't push the film's premise into "deep" or "daring" areas. New York Times film reviewer Manohla Dargis wrote: "If Mr. Nolfi doesn’t go deep in “The Adjustment Bureau,” drilling down to where it hurts (he would rather entertain than pain you), he skates on the gray-blue surfaces of his film with confidence."[1] Roger Ebert similarly opines: ""The Adjustment Bureau" is a smart and good movie that could have been a great one if it had a little more daring. I suspect the filmmakers were reluctant to follow its implications too far."[2] What accounts for Nolfi's "reluctance" to push his movie farther? What might this film have been had he drilled "down to where it hurts?"

The film is based on a 1954 Philip K. Dick short story. In the original story, adjustment teams have the ability to stop time, though what actually occurs during an "adjustment" is fairly vague. It's never really explained in detail what power the adjusters have, though Dick lets the reader know they can manipulate time, even reversing it by making people younger. But when the main character of Ed accidentally stumbles upon the adjusters doing their secretive work, his presence and actions have much more ominous implications than in the movie version. When Ed comes across a seller in the cigar stand in the building where he works and reaches to touch him, Dick writes: "The seller's arm came loose. It fell to the lobby floor, disintegrating into fragments. Bits of gray fibre. Like dust. Ed's senses reeled." Dick's descriptions of the period of adjustment are compact and consistent: "clouds of ash," "gray statue," "gray clouds," and "clouds of gray ash." "Gray" and "ash" are the words that dominate this part of this story and combine to create a harrowing feeling of cosmic dissolutionment, akin to a sole survivor walking in the apocalyptic wake of an atomic bomb blast. By contrast, in the film adaptation, Matt Damon's character of David Norris encounters the adjusters and merely witnesses a cinematic tableaux vivant—the only oddity being the fixity of time, with no additional "clouds of gray ash." While Norris' (Damon) presence is disruptive to these mysterious agents, there is none of the visceral pain or mortal terror suggested by Dick's "gray" and "ash" descriptions. Everyone maintains their normal outward appearances in the film. There are no "gray statues." The stakes of an "adjustment"—the physical jeopardy, the inherent risks, any sense of "gray" areas—are less dangerous and less pronounced in the film. For me, this is a missed opportunity to plunge into the depths of noir. Fate in the film is a tidy little problem, more or less the predictable outcome of good (or bad) accounting standards. The adjusters' handheld "books" offer real-time actuarial insight into their manipulations, so the adjustment teams seem more like arbitrage experts than anything else. The film favors a tone that soothes and offsets our fears about information overload--the all-too-real situation that we have all this data about us potentially swirling around in massive databases beyond our control. It also means that what the adjusters are doing becomes simply a game (a chase swirling around a romance, or a romance wrapped around a chase—take your pick) and the stakes of the game don't seem terribly high or particularly risky.

In terms of alt-noir universes, the adjusters of The Adjustment Bureau would seem to have more than a few passing affinities to The Strangers of Alex Proyas' Dark City (1998). Dark City embraced its noir-ness fully and generated a unique alt-noir universe, including elements of the detective thriller. However in The Adjustment Bureau, a similar idea involving unseen and secret forces manipulating our destinies seems remarkably un-sinister. As my wife commented to me, the difference probably lies in that The Adjustment Bureau has more in common with Heaven Can Wait than Dark City. There seems to be an interesting parallel to the supernatural and religious-inflected narratives of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Heaven Can Wait, and It's a Wonderful Life. These films all involve main characters who have their destinies changed by some quirk of fate, and they are aided in their journey back to their "normal" or "intended" life by various versions of Christian-styled guardian angels, nudging them back towards a desired, if not utterly predictable, path. Isn't this what Nofli's adjusters are really doing? In other words, is The Adjustment Bureau just the secular humanist version of Heaven Can Wait? Is Richardson (John Slattery) basically an update of Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains)?

In a similar way, I keep thinking that The Adjustment Bureau works hard to avoid any direct address to the War on Terror and the realities of a post-9/11 US society. Perhaps Dick's original imagery hits too close to home after 9/11. As I was reading the short story "The Adjustment Team," I definitely thought Dick was trying to capture a very basic human notion about essence (e.g., ashes to ashes, dust to dust) and a postwar fear of atomic and nuclear annihilation (i.e. the "dust clouds" of atomic explosions). But today, images of "gray ash" are also resonant with the tragic aftermath of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York City. We all witnessed the horrific images of New Yorkers covered in gray ash on that terrible day as they fled the falling Towers. All of our senses reeled at those images. For director Nolfi to use Dick's original imagery would bring his film uncomfortably close to the visual and visceral realities of 9/11: the "adjusters" would be read as terrorists more than as members of a hip, retro Mad Men-style cabal. It would undoubtedly complicate our feelings about the "adjusters'" plans and their secret missions to alter the course of human history. But wasn't such fear and angst about "adjustments" Dick's main point? Hasn't noir always been a collective mirror mediating the darker realities of everyday life and modern society? While it would have been a very different film in tone and mood to have shown the "adjustment" period as Dick wrote it, such a film would have retained a powerful critique, one that would be resonant today with our ongoing fears and anxieties about "world orders," new and otherwise. Of course, that is probably why Nolfi was reluctant to go there: this ominous critique is fairly incompatible with the romance thriller he actually made.

In the end, The Adjustment Bureau strokes our fascination, but not necessarily our fears, about postmodern existence inside virtual labyrinths. The film can be read as a beautiful but inchoate travelogue of 21st century New York City, a dizzying mash-up version of a city symphony. But unlike Inception (Nolan, 2010), we are not meant to ponder the mazes and mysteries we create through our endless manipulations of the Real. The Adjustment Bureau does not want to go there. It focuses instead on confirming a classic nostalgic myth: love conquers all. We might be too cynical to really believe that, but that's the ending Nolfi gives us, in a tip of his fedora to classic Hollywood storytelling.

Therefore, this film ends up presenting a kindler, gentler alt-noir universe. Even the film's tagline "your future has been adjusted" is a euphemism, lacking any real menace or bite. It's as if we finally glimpse the machinery running Oz and shrug our collective shoulders—sure, there are "men" behind the curtain, but haven't we known that for an awfully long time now? Time will tell if this movie indeed presages a new noir or neo-noir cycle. But we probably should adjust our film-going expectations and anticipate more films like this one to appear over the next few years as the noir fever that gripped Hollywood in the aftermath of 9/11 lightens up.

--Richard Edwards, 7/14/11

[1] Manohla Dargis, "Creepy People With a Plan, and a Couple on the Run,"

[2] Roger Ebert, "The Adjustment Bureau (2011),"

Clute and Edwards, 2005-2012