Hollywood has a mixed enthusiasm for Philip K. Dick. The only movie filmed while Dick was still alive was Blade Runner, and the author died before Ridley Scott could finish the studio-mandated cuts to bring it out of development hell. Since then, we’ve seen a scant few successes, like Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, and Minority Report, which I might be alone in considering both a good movie and a better adaptation than the original short story. Nowadays, people are throwing his work on the screen with reckless abandon, with predictably mixed results. Most of Dick’s short fiction dates from the 1950s and early 1960s, and most were considered schlocky pulp trash at the time, a few good ideas wrapped around a muddled execution and slapdash “twist ending”… much like the movie versions of Next and Paycheck.
Which brings us to The Adjustment Bureau, based on Dick’s 1954 story “The Adjustment Team,” one of those ‘two great ideas in a trash-heap’ stories. (The titular Bureau is one; the reason dogs bark before salesmen show up is the other.) Trailers and critics have been hyping the movie up as Jason Bourne meets Inception, combining Matt Damon’s thriller pedigree with the dream/imagination/reality Inception themes that should work surprisingly well with a Dickian background. Still, Dick’s work is no longer guaranteed gold on the silver screen (seriously, Paycheck?), but I’m a huge fan of the author, so anything labeled “Philip K. Dick” piques my interest.
(Now, go put a quarter in the jar each time you giggled when I wrote”Dick.”)
Let’s get this out of the way first: The Adjustment Bureau is equal parts romance film and thriller. To be fair, Inception turned into a James Bond montage in its third act. It’s also worth noting that a lot of great classic thrillers also blended in romance aspects, like Charade and many Hitchcock flicks (North By Northwest, To Catch A Thief, Vertigo…). And by blending genres, you can theoretically justify The Adjustment Bureau as a date movie to take your girlfriend to. In the end, it’s not a bad thing, but it makes the trailers feel misleading.
Matt Damon is young politician David Norris, running for New York senate; this treats us to a short election montage evoking strong Obama ’08 vibes, and a heaping pile of cameos, from Mayor Bloomberg to Wolf Blitzer to Jon Stewart (with not one but two fake Daily Show sections). It makes for good verisimilitude: one expects to see names like CNN and MSNBC bandied about in a real-world election, though seeing them both in a film (instead of some corny “ZNN” or whatever) makes me notice.
Alas, David is not meant to win the race, and despite leading the polls he’s utterly smashed come election day. When rehearsing his concession speech in a hotel bathroom, he runs into a wedding-crashing woman hiding from hotel security (Emily Blunt). They hit it off, chat for a few minutes, kiss, and she bolts for the exit; David, obviously smitten, forgets to ask for her name and phone number, but is inspired to go off-script for his speech. The popularity of the speech turns defeat into victory, as he’s suddenly a frontrunner for the next senate race.
Months later, as David heads to his venture capitalist day job, a mysterious dude (Mad Men‘s Jon Slattery) instructs another mysterious dude sitting on a park bench (Broadway and The Hurt Locker star Anthony Mackie)to spill coffee on David’s shirt by 7:05. Mysterious park bench dude falls asleep, waking up just as David walks onto a bus and sees… Emily Blunt’s character! Sparks continue to fly, chemistry increases, and she gives David her name (Elise) and phone number.
With its heavy romance plot, the movie demands a lot from Damon and Blunt, especially as it revolves around Damon’s character falling for Blunt’s in five minutes of awkward bathroom conversation. Remarkably, it succeeds; the two have some serious chemistry, and their relationship is palpable. Believing these two hit it off after two short meetings years apart is no problem, as everything—even the dialogue—is realistic, not corny, without a gifting arms race or comically absurd mishaps as far as the eye can see, and it succeeds with flying colors. (This makes this film the manly man’s romance, I guess.) You really root for these two. As the film progresses, you can tell David and Elise are the perfect couple, despite the Bureau’s insistence otherwise, and via some fine acting jobs these two keep the romance active even as the story progresses.
Mackie’s park bench agent, Harry, runs down the bus and botches the critical coffee spill, meaning David gets to work to find everything in suspended animation. Chased down by Jon Slattery’s mysterious G-Man, David is herded to a warehouse, where he’s told to forget everything he saw—an “adjustment” was taking place. Oh, and he’s told never to see Elise again, otherwise he’ll face a divine lobotomy. Her phone number is burned, the shaken David is dropped back into the real world.
This would be the titular Adjustment Bureau, combining Dick’s love of overworked, underfunded bureaucracies with his thematic reality-questioning, paranoia-inducing mind benders. As is revealed to David via Harry, the Bureau is the agent of predestination, making sure everything follows an all-encompassing Plan penned by the allegorical “chairman” in order to ensure the human race doesn’t shit itself out and collapse, like it did when it was allowed free will in the middle of the Roman Era. Slattery is a great choice as an antagonist, likable enough that you feel bad for him, in a “That poor man, what a shitty day at work” sense. At the same time, he’s enough of a looming badass in the Mad Men castoff costumes the Bureau members wear to be somewhat imposing, even if he doesn’t even know why he’s doing what he’s doing. Mackie is the epitome of the overworked bureaucrat, falling asleep on the job and questioning his duties.
Probably the biggest selling point of the story is portraying divinity (as it were) as an overarching 1950s bureaucracy, and it translates wonderfully in several of the film’s scenes. In the middle of the movie, Slattery’s sent one level up in a vault of previous Plans, a glimpse into the world just beyond his pay grade. The ambiguity of the “chairmen” and the Bureau is also a good touch, making the film open-ended in its interpretation. Bits of flavor like these, and the retro costume design, cover up the blatant MacGuffins, wheeled in last-minute and left unexplained—water limits the Bureau’s predestination abilities! their power comes from their hats! they can use doorways to jump across the city to other doorways in impressive chase sequences!
David soldiers on, keeping up the campaign for his senate bid, until he runs into Elise again: things really heat up. Defying his orders, David works hell-bent to get her back, resulting in the Bureau assigning Thompson “The Hammer” (Terence Stamp) to put thumbs to screw, which he does with reckless abandon. Even then, David is still hedging between the woman he loves and the Bureau doing its best to keep them apart. The third act is one of the strongest, but even then it has a few cracks. The climactic chase scene isn’t as intense as the “Bourne Meets Inception” mashup critics predicted, and the heavily capital-r Romance all but ensues a happy ending… then again, with the relationship built up by Damon and Blunt, you’ve probably been rooting for them the whole damn time anyway.
The Adjustment Bureau is a solid and entertaining movie, and one I can well recommend. While not the epitome of the year, it is a good movie… perhaps even well above “good.” As a romance, it succeeds… though, I might have lower expectations as a guy. The film’s a bit weaker as a thriller, but perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Transsiberian; The Adjustment Bureau lacks moments where you really fear for the characters—even after the worst “The Hammer” can dish out, their relationship feels solid—and while the chase scenes are superb, they run toward the short side.
The film works strongest at its meta-philosophical angle, and opens up a whole can o’ debate over free will, predestination, changing fate and all. And while it changes a lot of Dick’s story—it’s no longer campy, lacks the vague ’50s misogyny undertones, makes the Bureau more ambiguous, has characters with depth, gives said characters a relationship—it keeps intact the guts of Dickian themes: questioning, namely “What is real?” and “What is human?” (Human emotion and the “reality” of the Bureau’s predestination Plan, in this case.) Indeed, this could probably be the reason “Fight For Your Fate” is the film’s tagline.