To date, there have been nine Hollywood adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s novels and short stories. The latest, The Adjustment Bureau (adapted from a short story called “The Adjustment Team”), has the distinction of being in the exact middle of the pack. George Nolfi’s film doesn’t even come close to Blade Runner, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly or even Total Recall, but unlike Next, Paycheck, Screamers and Imposter, it is at least watchable. That placement seems fitting, since the film is average in pretty much every other way as well. It’s the type of film in which every time something seemingly interesting is about to happen, the director/writers manage to shoot themselves in their collective foot and move back to comfortable banality. Every time an interesting theme from the original story (which I unfortunately have not read) manages to come onto screen, it is quickly replaced by simple unimportant drama. Every time a chase scene seems to be leading somewhere interesting, it ends quickly, wasting the impressive New York sets. Every time the characters seem to move into the realm of real human emotions, their conversation is beset by romantic clichés. Those glimpses of a more interesting story will keep you watching and, at the very least, prevented me from being bored, but they do not make for a particularly good film.
Matt Damon plays “bad boy” New York congressman David Norris, who is on the verge of winning a senate seat as the film begins. His campaign is soon crushed by a minor scandal, and on the night of the election, he can’t even hold his home county. When he goes into the bathroom of his hotel headquarters to prepare his concession speech, he meets a dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt), who, after a few minutes of flirting, inspires him to give a stronger, completely honest speech, which vaults him to national attention. A month later, he runs into her on the bus, but that is a mistake, and it’s where the film’s real narrative begins. A mysterious group of men is watching David, including Harry (Anthony Mackie, from The Hurt Locker) and Richardson (Mad Men’s John Slattery), and they seem to be controlling his actions. On this specific morning, they screwed up. Harry, who has been watching David since he was a child, falls asleep at his watch and lets David get on the bus. As a result of this error, David and Elise reconnect, and David is able to get to his office on time, which allows him to see these men, the titular adjustment bureau, in action. They have frozen everyone there in place (one of the better visual pieces in the film), and are manipulating their minds in a way that will help David in his eventual presidential bid. Unfortunately, after they see him, they have to take David to their headquarters and reveal their secrets, including the fact that he cannot ever see Elise again, according to their mysterious plan. Of course, David does not like this, but they have the power to prevent that sort of thing from happening, so there’s nothing he can do without the help of what little random chance he can get. Eventually, David does find her, and after much interference from bureau higher-ups, including Thompson, played by the great Terrence Stamp, David and Elise have to find a way to escape their seemingly infinite reach.
One of the film’s strengths is that the seemingly complex rules governing the bureau are never completely laid out and explained to the audience. Nolfi at least has enough confidence in his audience to assume that they will be able to understand what the actions in the film imply. Unlike the writers of, say, Inception, he realized that spending half of your runtime explaining the film’s self-contained rules leads to a pretty terrible movie. That being said, the explanations given are still pretty lame. The film’s other strength is its cast. Damon and Blunt have enough talent and chemistry to usually get over the fact that most of their supposedly romantic dialogue sounds completely scripted and unnatural. They’ve both done better, but you can’t blame them for the film’s failings. Stamp gets to play the type of menacing authority figure that’s always been one of his strengths, while the always charming Slattery brings a good amount of humor to what could have been a stock villain. Mackie is probably the cast’s weak point. He has a very good physical presence, but something just feels forced about the rest of his performance. The political backdrop allows for some amusing cameos, including Jon Stewart and Michael Bloomberg, which do help add a sense of realism to David’s story, since any major political candidate would have to interact with them.
My biggest issue with the film is that the adjustment bureau itself is seen as a generic group of villains, and the moral implications of their presence are never explored in depth. In a conversation with David, the disgruntled Harry reveals that they are what we usually call angels, but that in actuality they are more like “caseworkers who live a lot longer than humans.” They have a boss who they call the chairman, but it’s quite clearly implied to be some sort of God. This should have been the focus of the movie, but whenever it comes up, the focus swiftly switches back to the dull central romance. From what I understand about the original story and my general knowledge of Dick’s writing, “The Adjustment Team” is concerned with the same issues of paranoia and psychosis as most of his best-known work. The fact that these beings are constantly watching us and manipulating our actions is supposed to be absolutely terrifying, but Nolfi is either unwilling or unable to deal with this issue. After David discovers the existence of the bureau, he simply goes back to his everyday life with no noticeable changes. I guess there are a instances in which the shot selection conveys some of this feeling, particularly in the half-dozen or so wide shots of David alone in large empty rooms, but these shots are all quickly replaced by generic mediums and close-ups, with nothing particularly interesting or original involved. At one early, random moment, David and Elise briefly stop by a rave, and even that manages to look dull in this film. The visual blandness hurts the film most in its chase sequences. The bureau men are able to jump all over the city by going through a network of specific doors, which for them open in completely new places (for example, the outfield door in Yankee Stadium leads to Liberty Island). Eventually, David learns their secret and him and Elise make their escape through this network. Unfortunately, despite the ability to choose any location in New York, they spend most of the chase sequences running through generic office buildings and side streets. At the very least, I think these complaints show that The Adjustment Bureau did at least have the potential to be good, which it squandered in its subservience to bland Hollywood convention. On the other hand, it could have been much worse. At least it wasn’t another Next.
The Adjustment Bureau is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image.
It opens everywhere on March 4th, 2011
Written and Directed by George Nolfi; based on a short story by Philip K. Dick; director of photography, John Toll, edited by Jay Rabinowitz; original music by Thomas Newman; art director, Stephen H. Carter; produced by Bill Carraro, Michael Hackett, Chris Moore and George Nolfi; distributed by Universal Pictures. Run time: 1 hour 40 minutes.
With: Matt Damon (David Norris), Emily Blunt (Elise Sallas), Anthony Mackie (Harry), Michael Kelly (Charlie Traynor), John Slattery (Richardson) and Terrence Stamp (Thompson).