by Mel Valentin
Despite Philip K. Dick’s death almost 30 years ago, adaptations of his work, short stories and novels, usually grounded in science fiction, have been ubiquitous on the big screen. Released months after Dick’s untimely death in 1982, "Blade Runner,' an adaptation of Dick’s 1968 novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” became, over time, the exemplar of thoughtful, thought-provoking science fiction on film , of highly detailed, immersive world-building (thanks to then-current visual effects and production design). Early reviews were less than kind, moviegoers indifferent, but subsequent critical reevaluation and re-releases (theatrically, on video, laserdisc, DVD, and now Blu-Ray) have changed those early negative opinions to the positive.Subsequent adaptations of Dick’s short stories and novels have ranged from the memorable, if flawed (e.g., A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Total Recall) to the mediocre and forgettable (Screamers) or even abysmal (Payback). The Adjustment Bureau, an adaptation of Dick’s story, “The Adjustment Team,” falls closer to the first category than to the second or third. Written and directed by screenwriter-turned-first-time director George Nolfi (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Sentinel, Ocean's Twelve, Timeline), The Adjustment Bureau, a flawed, but by no means fatally flawed, romantic-fantasy-thriller that uses its movie-star leads Matt Damon and Emily Blunt and their respective chemistry together, as well as a persuasively written, well-developed romance (more difficult than it looks or sounds) as the basis for an engaging, sometimes even compelling film.
"Damon and Blunt charm in loose adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story."
The Adjustment Bureau centers on David Norris (Matt Damon), a promising politician running for U.S. Senate and his life-altering encounter with the “Adjustment Bureau” of the title, a super-powerful, extraterrestrial/supernatural organization that controls the destinies of every man, woman, and child on Earth (and maybe elsewhere too). They’re the literal Powers-That-Be, akin to angels in various world mythologies. They look nothing like the centuries-old depiction of angels, however. They look like they’ve stepped off the set of Mad Men. They favor suits, ties, and fedoras. Norris has his own guardian MIS, Harry (Anthony Mackie), an MIS troubled by a Plan that actively interferes, restricts, redirects, and even eliminates choice. His superior, Richardson (Mad Men regular John Slattery), has no such qualms. Richardson is, in essence, the perfect bureaucrat, placing the organization’s interests above his own or anyone else’s.
On what should be the lowest point of his professional and personal career, an unexpected drubbing in an election in which he was heavily favored, he meets Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), a professional dancer (no, not a stripper, the other kind). She overhears his anguished preparation for his concession speech from a men’s bathroom stall. They meet, exchange pleasantries, sparks fly (in atypical “meet cute” scene), they embrace, but part before they can exchange contact information. Norris gives a rousing concession speech the same night, possibly reversing his political fortunes. Norris, however, can’t get Elise out of his mind. He meets her again, months later, on a bus. They spark again. This time she gives him her number, but the intervention of the Mein in Suits (MIS) trailing Norris and Norris spotting them as they work to rebalance reality sets him on a course through months and years to find Elise again.
Ill-fated lovers, separated by time, distance, human and sometimes non-human obstacles, are certainly nothing new on film, but Nolfi, departing heavily from Dick’s Cold War-centered short story, obviously knows (and appreciates) his film history. Antecedents for The Adjustment Bureau can be found in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s near-career best romantic fantasy, A Matter of Life and Death (a.k.a., Stairway to Heaven), released sixty-five years, and Wim Wenders’ 1986 post-modern angels-in-Berlin fantasy, Wings of Desire. Both films center on a romantic pairing and the heavenly obstacles separating them from a lifetime of monogamous bliss. In A Matter of Life and Death, the central character goes on trial, literally, for his life. In Wenders’ film, an angel makes the momentous decision to become human, losing his immortality in the process (in both, Heaven is depicted in black-and-white, Earth in color).
There isn’t the equivalent of a trial in The Adjustment Bureau, but there’s something close meant to prove the central characters fate- and Heaven-defying love. Like A Matter of Life and Death and Wings of Desire, The Adjustment Bureau shows no trace of irony or cynicism, unapologetically extolling the virtues (and awe and wonder) of romantic love. For some (most?) moviegoers, that lack of irony and cynicism will be more than welcome (for cynics, not so much). The fantasy plot elements will also make The Adjustment Bureau more palatable to romance-adverse members of the audience. Unlike other Philip K. Dick adaptations, however, the multiple realities set-up doesn’t end in a rug-pulling twist (if it did, cynicism would prevails).That’s not to say "The Adjustment Bureau" isn’t without its faults. It has several, beginning (and ending) with the arbitrary rule-setting for the supernatural powers bestowed by the Chairman (the word “God” is never used) on his Earth-side representatives. Each limitation serves a clear narrative purpose, but not a logical one (logic as created and constrained within the world’s basic rules). The free will vs. determinism question, while fascinating, gets only a minimal workout, raising more questions than the Men in Suits care to answer. The Chairman’s powers are also subject to debate. If he, or rather it, set up a Plan, a Plan that requires active manipulation of events and decision-making, does that preclude the usual omniscience and omnipotence ascribed to top-tier deities? Nolfi seems more than happy to leave those questions unanswered, focusing on the initial mystery, the romance, and the odd, occasional set piece (well-choreographed, it should be added).
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originally posted: 03/04/11 00:00:00