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Film / The Adjustment Bureau

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David Norris: Who the hell are you guys?
Richardson: We... are the people that make sure things happen according to plan.

The Adjustment Bureau is a 2011 film based on the Philip K. Dick short story "Adjustment Team".

David Norris (Matt Damon) is a charismatic Congressman whose campaign for Senate is derailed by a last-minute press leak. He practices his concession speech in the men's room, not realizing that he is being overheard by Elise (Emily Blunt), who is hiding from security in one of the stalls after crashing a wedding. She eventually owns up to being there, and the two have a romantically-charged conversation that ends in a passionate kiss. Afterwards, he abandons his planned speech for a heartfelt and impassioned tirade that propels him to the forefront of public consciousness, earning him strong support for the next Senate election.

A short time later, David runs into Elise on a bus and gets her phone number. However, when he gets to his office, time is frozen and he is accosted by a cabal of suit-clad, hat-wearing men who knock him unconscious and teleport him to a mysterious warehouse. The men explain that they are the people who make sure things happen as they are supposed to, and that he must not see Elise again (burning the paper with her number, which he had not memorized).

Three years later, David finally finds Elise again, reconnects with her, and decides that he's going to be with her, no matter what the mysterious cosmic bureaucrats say. But it won't be easy...

This film provides examples of:

  • Abandoned Warehouse: Where the Bureau take David.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The original story is very short and has a much different plot, focusing on the tribulations of an insurance salesman named Ed Fletcher as he sees the Bureau's activities and starts worrying that he's losing his mind.
  • Affably Evil / Anti-Villain: The Adjustment Bureau as a whole is actually a fairly benevolent organization, forcing people onto the paths as dictated by the Plan for the greater good. Until David reveals their existence to Elise, their tactics mostly revolved around delaying or distracting David or offering him alternatives to stop him from pursuing Elise.
  • Anti-Climax: After chasing David and Elise throughout New York (eventually having them cornered by Thompson), the Chairman decides to let them have free will and let them go without a fuss, all without even showing his face.
  • Artistic License – History: It is referred to on a couple of occasions that David Norris is the youngest person elected to Congress at the age of 24. According to the most basic research, there have been three others (Jesse Wharton of Tennessee, William Rufus deVane King of North Carolina, and David W. Dickinson of Tennessee) who have been elected at the age of 24. While that is not conclusive territory for this trope (he might have been 24 years and 8 months, whereas those three were 24 years and more than 8 months or the like), one must take into account William C.C. Claiborne, the second U.S. Representative from Tennessee (after Andrew Jackson), who, according to some reliable sources, was as young as 22 years of age when he was elected and sworn in as a member of the House. There is also the appearance of some Artistic License in the area of Congressional eligibility, since under Article One of the United States Constitution, anyone under 25 is not eligible to be a member of the House of Representatives. However, it is generally accepted that 24-year-olds can be elected to the House if they will be 25 at the time they are sworn in; today, this means that they need to have a November or December birthday, or be born on New Year's Day or the 2nd of January (this means that he cannot be actually the youngest member).note  (Incidentally, Joe Biden used this nuance in his first election to the Senate in 1972: he was 29 at the election, but turned 30 — the relevant age for the Senate — about two weeks later.)
  • The Atoner: Harry's guilt over his part in the deaths of David's father and brother leads him to help David.
  • Badass Bureaucrat:
    • The Adjusters can kick some major ass with their psychic powers. Though subverted in that one of them lies about the extent of his powers to seem more badass than he really is.
    • They are capable of taking a lot of damage; Harry gets run over by a taxi and is perfectly fine afterwards. Also subverted in that they have no physical fighting abilities whatsoever. David can shove them out of the way or punch them in the face without much fear for his physical well-being (just his mental well-being if they can hold him long enough).
  • Because Destiny Says So: Richardson's only justification for why David cannot see Elise again is "because the plan says so". After hearing this, David makes Richardson admit that he doesn't know why the plan says so.
    • The Chosen One: Thompson later explains why: he's supposed to run for President later, and Elise is a master choreographer. Four more election wins, starting from one encounter, will cause both of them to achieve their original dreams. By doing neither, and falling for each other, they forfeit their dreams and will live very minimal lives.
  • Been There, Shaped History: Many of the more notable eras in human history (the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, World War I, the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the Holocaust, and the Cuban Missile Crisis) were all the result of humanity gaining free will, each reaching their end when the Adjusters regain control.
  • Beleaguered Bureaucrat: The Adjusters show a touch of this, particularly Harry, who complains at the start that his work has been wearing him down (in fact, the conflict of the movie is set in motion because he falls asleep on the job). Despite the imposing presence they maintain, they still make mistakes, need help, and can't always keep up with the many moving parts they're responsible for.
    Richardson: Everyone needs a vacation. Even us.
  • Beneath the Mask: David exposing his fake public image in his concession speech.
  • Bittersweet Ending: David and Elise can be together after the plan has been re-written to allow it, but they have to live the rest of their lives knowing that nobody truly has free will, that anything bad that happens to them or anyone they care about was deliberately written to be that way, and they can't tell anyone else about it for fear of being mind-wiped.
  • Bizarrchitecture: The bad guys could, among their many powers, turn ordinary buildings into messed-up mazes.
  • Book Ends: First time we see Elise, she is hiding in the toilets from some men in black, because they found she is crashing a wedding. Toward the end, she is AGAIN hiding in the toilets during a wedding, though it is her own wedding. And David appears to crash the wedding, pursued by other men in black.
  • Break Her Heart to Save Her: David does this to Elise after hearing from Thompson that if he stays with her, she won't become a world famous dancer, so he leaves her without explanation in the hospital. The crucial fact Thompson left out is that Elise is still happier being with him. It's when David realizes this that he goes full Determinator to get her back.
  • Broken Aesop:
    • The main message of the movie seems to be Screw Destiny, as the main character fights to defy "The Plan" and be with the girl he loves. Yet, we find out that the only reason he's so obsessed with this girl is because they were originally meant to be together in the first place, before the plan changed. Also, David can only effectively fight the plan by receiving help from an Adjustment Bureau Agent on the inside. Also, in the end, even that isn't enough, as they only succeed when the Chairman allows them to continue.
    • The aesop is broken in the other way considering that the Bureau is around in the first place because they say that when they aren't, humanity is too violent and irresponsible to be left alone. So David proves he has the right to free will by running amok with affairs far over his head and jeopardizing his own ability to make the world a better place just because he personally wants to get the girl.
  • Brutal Honesty: David salvages his political career after a FUBAR election by giving an atypically frank concession speech with some very unflattering remarks about his spin doctors, restoring his credibility as a "people's candidate".
  • The Cameo: Jennifer Ehle appears as a bartender whenever Harry wants to meet with David.
  • Celestial Bureaucracy: The Adjusters are supernatural beings in charge of human destinies... and they dress like 50's office clerks and work in what appears to be a huge chancellery.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Harry Mitchell warns David that turning the door knobs counterclockwise is "only for us", then promptly returns to the Bureau building by doing just that. Guess what David ends up doing? Subverted in the same conversation: Harry also pointedly tells David not to let go of him until they cross the threshold. Even while frantically running around with an uninitiated Muggle in tow, this never becomes an issue.
  • Clock King: The Adjusters rely on other people adhering to strict schedules, timetables, and patterns. When their target starts to improvise (or, worse, one of them fails to act at the exact time prescribed by the plan), a Spanner in the Works is inevitable. On the other hand, the adjusters seem astonished that David has ridden the exact same bus to work for the past 3 years and fail to keep Elise from crossing paths with it despite how strictly he rides it.
  • Covers Always Lie: Emily Blunt's red dress from the poster never turns up in the actual film.
  • Credits Gag: In the end credits, the first in the list of acknowledgements/thanks is "The Chairman".
  • Determinator: David knows for a fact that there are beings with supernatural powers trying to keep him from Elise. His plan, at the start, is essentially to keep trying until they give up.
  • Deus ex Machina: Almost literally. The movie ends happily for the protagonists basically because The Chairman literally wrote a different ending for them. Based on the context of the film, this is more of an in-universe 'Deus Ex Deo'.
  • Disposable Fiancé: Elise broke up with her fiancé because of her lingering feelings for David, despite only having met him twice briefly three years beforehand. She ends up ditching the same fiancé again on the day of their wedding, when David decides to Screw Destiny.
  • Divine Race Lift: The film originally cast and shot scenes with Shohreh Aghdashloo as The Chairman, portraying god as a motherly figure, whereas the case workers (angels) of the Adjustment Bureau are all men of various races. However, the role was left out of the final film to leave the Chairman's identity deliberately vague.
  • The Dreaded: Thompson is called "The Hammer" because he's known to settle the more difficult cases rather destructively.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: The only reason David and Elise get their Happily Ever After rewrite is because their sheer determination in the face of so many obstacles impresses The Chairman.
  • Empty Shell: Richardson threatens to erase David entirely if he reveals the existence of the Adjusters.
  • Evil Old Folks: Thompson, played by Terence Stamp, is the oldest Adjuster we see and employs the most brutal tactics on David, such as giving him a Hannibal Lecture or two on the destructiveness of humanity and David's own impulsiveness and spraining Elise's ankle to hurt David.
  • Faceless Goons: The adjuster minions.
  • First-Name Basis: Harry Mitchell, the one "good" member of the Bureau, gives David his first name.
  • Flat "What":
    Oh my god.
    (Bureau member shows the lines to Thompson that all available choices are bad)
  • For Want of a Nail: Small things make big ripples in the plan, though for good reason. The Bureau specifically uses small things to push people into the right path. People who start moving in a slightly different direction all of a sudden spiral things out of control, as their actions move other people out of the way of those initial small disturbances.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Early on, David makes a speech that mentions the importance of people making their own choices.
    • Nicely done with hats being the key to their powers: while running after David, Richardson loses his and can't open a door he himself just locked.
    • Also in the opening montage, where there is a consultant showing David and his campaign staff an array of ties, and then David mentions it in the same speech.
    • After Richardson fails to stop David and Elise from becoming an item, he warns David that he's only won the battle, not the war. Soon after, Elise starts getting a bunch of calls from her ex, apropos of nothing, hinting that there are still forces working quietly against them.
  • Gambit Roulette: The Adjusters work to ensure that everything a person does in his life leads to the one outcome prescribed by the plan. However, they are not omnipotent, and cannot control every circumstance.
  • God: Implied to be the identity of The Chairman. Or some type of god, at least.
  • Hat of Power: All the bureaucrats have them, and they turn out to be key to their teleportation powers.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: David.
  • Hollywood History: We're told that letting humanity off the leash led to the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages. The fact that parts of the world outside Europe were doing just fine, or no worse than usual, during that period is ignored. Then again, this might be intentional; David calls attention to Thompson's selective focus when he treats the present like it's all good (to which he can only counter with "could be worse"), so Thompson may be deliberately emphasizing the negative.
  • Humans Are Bastards: According to Thompson, the first time the Bureau tried a hands-off approach, "you gave us the Dark Ages for five hundred years"; the second time resulted in World War I, World War II, and the Cuban missile crisis. They seem to overlook all the good things that occurred during the Dark Ages, and all the bad things that occurred under their watch between the Middle Ages and World War I. Or hell, all the bad things happening right now.
    David Norris: So you handle the important things. Well the last time I checked, the world's a pretty screwed up place.
    Thompson: It's still here. If we'd left things in your hands, it wouldn't be.
  • Humans Are Flawed: The Chairman believes humanity will eventually be deserving of free will... just not yet.
  • I Have Many Names: The man in charge of the Bureau: "We call him the Chairman, you call him many things."
  • Immune to Fate: David has shades of this, due to pieces of the previous plan trickling back in, causing him to repeatedly bump into Elise against the Bureau's best efforts. His stubborn determination to Screw Destiny likewise causes the Bureau members to frequently ask, "Who is this guy?"
  • In Mysterious Ways: How the Bureau usually operates. They arranged the initial meeting with Elise because they knew she would inspire David to give an excellent speech, which in turn would boost his political career. Later, Harry Mitchell was supposed to prevent their second meeting by making David spill his coffee.
  • Indy Ploy: How David outwits the Adjusters. It is explicitly pointed out that they cannot improvise well or adapt to rapidly changing situations.
  • In-Series Nickname: Thompson was nicknamed "The Hammer" when he was a field Adjuster.
  • Kick the Dog: Thompson when he deliberately sprains Elise's ankle.
  • Landslide Election: In the election, David is completely humiliated by his opponent after his ratings plummet due to a leaked embarrassing photo.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Averted. The adjusters threaten to reset David: "Your emotions, your memories, your entire personality will be expunged." They are apparently either unable or unwilling to selectively remove only his knowledge of the Bureau.
  • Last-Name Basis: All of the Adjusters are only known by their last name, save for Harry Mitchell, who prefers a First-Name Basis.
  • The Last Straw: Thompson says that the Last Straw for the Adjusters (after about 50 years of sitting back) was the Cuban Missile Crisis; humanity was put back under the Adjusters' control before they did something that even they couldn't fix.
  • Leno Device: David appears on The Daily Show.
  • Magical Negro: Harry Mitchell, the Adjuster who decides to help David.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Elise is made of this trope. They meet in the men's washroom when she is hiding from security from having crashed a wedding, drops his phone into his coffee on purpose, and is a dancer. Though while Elise certainly has many MPDG trappings, she may just scrape a subversion of this trope by dint of the following: firstly, she has dreams and a life of her own which don't involve the emotional well-being of the main male character; second, her job in the story is not to loosen David up — he is already impulsive to a fault and their relationship is not one of Elise shaking up David's staid life with her kooky charm. They both share a goofy sense of humour from the outset and don't feel the need to change anything about the other. Elise does inspire David to some particularly successful impromptu speech-making when they first meet, but this is not actually a break from a previously buttoned-up personality for him, just a more-successful-than-usual deployment of his existing impulsiveness.
  • The Masquerade: Apparently, very few people have been told about the existence of the Bureau, and Richardson threatens to erase David's mind (all of it — memories, personality, emotions, everything) if he tells anyone. Mind, the members do, after suitable bureaucratic bickering about precedent, pretty much just sit him down and tell him the truth once they figure he's seen too much to just write it off as nothing.
    Richardson: You've just seen behind a curtain you weren't even supposed to know existed.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": All the Adjusters hunting David do this when David and Elise enter the Adjuster' headquarters.
  • Meaningful Name:
  • Meet Cute: David and Elise have a very Rom Com-esque meeting in the men's room.
  • Memory-Wiping Crew: Discussed. The adjusters mention an Intervention Team that takes care of the memory resetting.
  • The Men in Black: The Adjusters.
  • Metaphorically True: David's explanation that he lost Elise's number because he was mugged isn't true in the way she thinks, but it is true in that it was taken from him against his will.
  • Missed the Bus: Inverted. David was supposed to miss the bus, the problem lies in that he didn't.
  • Mooning: David did this at a college reunion, which destroyed his chances at a senate seat.
  • No Party Given: No mentions of David's party during his election campaign. Although his opponent is a Republican, and he is shown meeting with famous Democrats in an early scene. Also, the New York county map showing David's loss shows the election results is dominated by red, which is the media's current designator for the Republican party, and he's played by Matt Damon, who would be unlikely to play a Republican.
  • Not Staying for Breakfast: Subverted. David only left to get them breakfast.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Although definitely not in the usual sense.
  • Odd Name Out: The named bureaucrats are Richardson, Donaldson, Thompson... and Harry Mitchell. Eh, could be a Harrison. Of course, the mere fact that he chooses to be called something different is still a clue to his anomalous nature.
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten: Harry gets a lot of crap from Richardson for his slip-up that put David and Elise together again, though Richardson eventually apologizes after learning that the Red String of Fate was actually to blame for making that one mistake a thousand times worse than it should have been.
  • Our Angels Are Different:
    David: Are you angels?
    Harry: We've been called that. We're more like case officers who live a lot longer than humans.
  • Our Gods Are Different: The Chairman is certainly implied to be some sort of god figure, though as with Our Angels Are Different, the comparison is probably not a terribly precise one. He's not omnipotent, else he wouldn't need the Bureau to execute his plan. He's not omniscient, else the plan wouldn't need to be changed. But it's clear through his proxies that he has knowledge and powers well beyond that of humans. Also, a deleted scene reveals that "He" is actually a woman.
  • Open and Shut: The men of the Adjustment Bureau have the power to open any door to any other door, allowing them to close in on any target rather swiftly. This ability is not innate to them but provided by their 1950s-style hats; one of them temporarily gives his hat to the hero so he can beat them at their own game.
  • Portal Network: Used by the bureaucrats to stay a step ahead of people. Also played with in that they have difficulty traveling in this manner downtown because of all the "substrate."
  • Portal Slam: What happens if a normal person tries to use the bureaucrats' doors.
  • The Power of Love: In this case, love has no special power, except to motivate David and Elise to defy the Bureau to the point that even The Chairman is moved.
  • Powers That Be: The Celestial Bureaucracy which secretly controls human society is headed by a mysterious, all-knowing being known only as "The Chairman", but remains offscreen. In deleted scenes, it was revealed the Chairman is actually a woman.
  • Psychic Powers: The bureaucrats can see people's decisions, though they can't truly read minds. They can alter minds, but that uses some sort of technology.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The bureaucrats. None of them are actually malicious, some do not even know why they are doing what they do, it's just their job. When the plan is changed, hard-ass Thompson immediately backs off.
  • Railroading: What the Adjusters are doing to humanity down to each individual. It's all a subversion in the end, because their goal is to pressure people into ultimately rejecting the railroading in the first place so that they will fight for the right and responsibility to run their own lives.
  • Reality Warper: The Adjusters are able to make minor changes to the environment as long as they are in range.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Thompson giving his speech about how humans are not (yet) worthy of free will.
  • Red String of Fate: In a previous version of the plan, David and Elise were meant to be together. When the plan was changed, the previous version could not be entirely washed away, which is why they feel like they are meant for each other. What's not made quite clear is whether it is because of the plan that they love each other, or the plan simply put them together because they're such an ideal match.
  • Romantic False Lead: Elise's former and future fiancé Adrian.
  • Screw Destiny: Easier said than done.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: All of the bureaucrats. David, much of the time.
  • Sliding Scale of Free Will vs. Fate: Hard to pin down, as "fate" is only fate insofar as the Bureau makes it so, and it is later indicated that the bureaucrats may have free will themselves. People apparently have free will as long as it doesn't interfere with the plan. On the other hand, the Bureau can directly change a person's mind if they need to.
  • Spanner in the Works: Harry's negligence (specifically by falling asleep) royally screws up the Adjusters' plan for David's destiny. When David learns of the Adjusters' existence, he makes breaking up their plans his trade.
  • Spiritual Successor: To Dark City, as both films are about a man trying to reconnect with the woman he loves while fleeing from memory-erasing men in very nice hats, who travel across the city through unusual means (and like the Strangers, the Adjusters have a weakness to water.)
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: The movie's premise.
  • Starter Villain: Richardson is The Heavy for the first half of the film. Once David causes too many ripples, Thompson is sent in to push David back on-plan.
  • State The Simple Solution: When it is explained that the Adjusters' ability to travel through doors depends on their hats, David immediately suggests that he could knock off the hats of those trying to pursue him.
  • Theme Naming:
    • The bureaucrats have names ending in -son, except Harry Mitchell.
    • The three main bureaucrats are Thompson, Richardson and Harry- Tom, Dick and Harry.
  • Throwing Out the Script: David, as a senatorial candidate, is preparing his concession speech in the men's room when he has his Meet Cute with Elise. He is then inspired by the meeting to ditch his prepared speech and instead gives a brutally honest account of how his entire "common man" image, right down to the color of his ties and the scuff on his shoes, is the result of the work of highly paid consultants and spin doctors trying to reach the largest possible audience. This ends up further cementing Norris' reputation as the "people's candidate", which is just what the Bureau wanted.
  • Time Police: The Bureau resembles this.
  • Title Drop
  • True Love's Kiss: Richardson notes that "a real kiss" can shatter the careful workings of the Bureau and throw David and Elise back off-plan again.
  • Uniqueness Value: Lampshaded by David. When Richardson keeps preventing cabs from picking him up, he asks incredulously if that's diverting them off their plans.
  • Villain Teleportation: Subverted, the first chase hints at it, but it's all done via a Portal Network for hat people.
  • Weaksauce Weakness / Power Limiter:
    • The Bureau's ability to see people's decisions is hampered by water, which is later explained as one of The Chairman's ways of making sure his bureaucrats aren't too powerful.
    • They also can't use the door network if their hats fall off.
    • Harry admits that they aren't the best at creative thinking, due in part to their Clock King tendencies. That's one of the reasons knocking off the hats works — because they wouldn't expect it.
  • White-and-Grey Morality: Given the Paranoia Fuel premise, the Plan that the bureaucrats carry out leads humanity in a generally positive direction. It becomes less a conflict of good vs. evil and more a debate on to what degree Humans Are Flawed, and how hard we're willing to work to make the Plan unnecessary.
  • Winds of Destiny, Change!: The bureaucrats have this as a power. They can make a phone not work momentarily, a cab driver won't pick someone up, a curb will pop up out of nowhere, and at the extreme, they might cause a sudden injury.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Deconstructed. Destiny needs its little helpers to ensure the proper unfolding of the great plan. You can try fighting it, but the Bureau sure won't let it pass without a struggle.