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 V.20 No.9 | March 3 - 9, 2011 

Film Review

The Adjustment Bureau

Sci-fi romance fights the odds to find love

The Adjustment Bureau

Directed by George Nolfi

Cast: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt

“Now, lemme just show you these fine flooring samples.”
“Now, lemme just show you these fine flooring samples.”
A lot of people have tried to adapt the works of cult sci-fi guru Philip K. Dick to movies. Most attempts (Next, Paycheck, Impostor, Screamers) have failed miserably. Some (Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall) have succeeded despite having little connection to Dick’s mind-expanding originals. Only Richard Linklater’s animated freak show A Scanner Darkly successfully mirrors Dick’s paranoid, schizophrenic, drug-fueled, transcendental, metaphysical worldview. As a result, it’s a pretty fucked-up movie.

The Adjustment Bureau, a new feature starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, falls into the second category of entertaining, mainstream Hollywood efforts loosely based on the works of Philip K. Dick. The film uses a P.K.D. short story“The Adjustment Team,” written in 1954as its basic inspiration. There are elements (a traditionally religious worldview and a major romance) that Dick himself would never have penned. But there is a quirky sense of paranoia and a growing realization that the fabric of the universe is not quite what we perceive it to beboth of which are classic Dick moves.

Damon stars as David Norris, a hotshot young New York politician jockeying for a spot in the Senate. One fateful day (literally), David catches a crosstown bus and meets a beguiling ballet dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt). Here’s the problem: David wasn’t supposed to catch that bus. He wasn’t supposed to meet Elise. And he wasn’t supposed to get to work on time that day. Arriving at the office, he spots a group of mysterious men dressed in suits and hats, “Mad Men”-style. These strange men have somehow frozen all the people in David’s office and are brainwashing them.

Turns out these strange figuresled, appropriately enough, by John Slattery of “Mad Men”are members of the Adjustment Bureau, a cosmic team of enforcers who ensure fate unfolds according to the plan of the Old Man Upstairs. (Despite their sartorial choices, the film basically admits they’re guardian angels straight out of It’s A Wonderful Life.) Problem is, God (or whomever is sitting in the Head Office) is kind of a fascist jerk and only wants the human race laboring under the illusion of free will. Every time somebody tries to deviate from the predetermined path, members of the Adjustment Bureau throw a tiny roadblock in their way. It could be a spilled cup of coffee or a barking dog. If a little more intervention is needed, an auto accident could be arranged. For last-ditch efforts, they simply wipe out people’s brains.

But David’s personal watchdog (Anthony Mackie from The Hurt Locker) doesn’t want to resort to that. He figures the best policy is telling the truth. David has gotten a little peek behind the fabric of reality. And that’s OK. So long as he doesn’t tell anyone. Or see that girl Elise ever again. David has an important destiny to fulfill. And so does Elise. If they hook up, they’ll derail one another, and things won’t happen according to the Old Man’s master plan.

At first, David agrees. But his mad, “love at first sight” feelings for Elise keep him searching for her face in crowds. Eventually, the two can’t fight it and end up getting back together. Screw fate, screw destiny: They’re going to be in love no matter what anybody says. But how easy is that going to be when they’re trying to keep their romance hidden from a supernatural bureaucracy that can manipulate the laws of the universe?

The Adjustment Bureau sticks closely to Dick’s clever original conceit: That of a shadowy organization steering our destiny through tiny, unseen, manipulative means. Viewers should be mindful, though, that the film version is essentially a sci-fi romance. Like Starman and ... hmm. Not The Time Traveler’s Wife. Not The Lake House. Not Solaris. Not Saturn 3. ... Oh! Wall-E! Like Starman and Wall-E, it’s a good one. Damon and Blunt are attractive folks and demonstrate some good, flirty chemistry. As the film builds, there’s an enjoyable “against all odds” feel to it. Historically speaking, fictional lovers have had to overcome a lot in order to consummate their relationships. But fighting the living embodiment of universal destiny is a biggie.

First-time writer-director George Nolfi (who penned The Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean’s Twelve) keeps things simple. He basically combines the glossy, well-dressed urban look of Inception with the backstory that nobody remembers from Wanted. He doesn’t overthink Dick’s admittedly trippy premise. He treats it as straight-faced fact and proceeds with the romantic impediments. Hardcore fans of Dick may walk away wishing for more, but mainstream audiences should appreciate this heart-shaped head trip.


The Adjustment Bureau

In this takeoff on a little-known short story Phillip K. Dick wrote back in 1954, Matt Damon plays a senatorial hopeful who meets and falls in love with a beguiling ballet dancer (Emily Blunt). Unfortunately, he wasn't supposed to cross paths with her. Now, the forces of fate--embodied by a bunch of dudes in 1950s suits and hats--must use all the manipulative powers at their command to end this relationship. It's an odd mix of speculative science fiction and romance, but it mostly works. Think the glossy, well-dressed urban look of Inception crossed with the backstory nobody remembers from Wanted. 106 minutes PG-13.

 

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Part of a six-part PBS series that focuses on the impact of women in comedy, politics, space, war, business and Hollywood.

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