The Adjustment Bureau,
directed by George Nolfi
(Universal Pictures, 2011)

Philip K. Dick stories are the stuff Saturday matinee dreams are made of. So far, 10 of them have been turned into films; without a doubt, there will be many more. The latest, The Adjustment Bureau, is, like Source Code, adapted from the short story "The Adjustment Team."

As far as charming time fillers go, TAB is the perfect date movie. It's not only a serviceable sci-fi mindbender, it's a love story as well. Geeks and romance lovers alike should get something out of this light, filled-with-whipped cream treat.

Boyishly charming David Norris (Matt Damon) is a rising congressman who loses a Senate election due to a past indiscretion. The same night that he has to give a concession speech, he runs into Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt). Sparks fly but they have to part ways before he has a chance to find out who she is. In a neat turn of events, he bumps into her again on the bus when he starts his first day as an ordinary working man. The chemistry between them, not to mention the number of coincidental meetings, is strong enough for Elise to give him her number, strong enough for David to feel that fate is perhaps playing a role in their lives; unfortunately, he's right in ways he cannot even begin to imagine.

Turns out that the reason he met her the second time is because Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) fell asleep on the job. Mitchell works for a mysterious team called The Adjustment Bureau, who kidnaps David and informs him of their plans for him, which are complicated, given that he is to play a major role in humanity's near future. For the sake of his important future, those plans involve keeping him and Elise apart. He was never supposed to have met her the second time, hence the "adjustment." Forcing him to burn the piece of paper that has her number on it, they inform him in no uncertain terms that if he discloses any information about the bureau's existence or attempts to find Elise again, his memory will be completely wiped.

Norris, who finds himself so drawn to Elise that he cannot keep away from her, does not share the bureau's vision of preset fate, putting his faith in free will. The next four years are a game of cat and mouse as he tries to find a way to be with Elise without ruining both their lives by bringing the wrath of the bureau down on them.

The two best bits of the movie are the palpable chemistry of its two leads, which transcend the somewhat facile plot, and the presence of Terence Stamp as team leader Thompson. Stamp's creepy, ice-cold demeanor is put to excellent use as a team leader who uses truth as much as much as menace to explain to Norris why the existence of the team is a necessary evil. This doesn't stop love from happening, nor does it stop Norris from trying to outrun the agents while attempting to find out where their leader is so that he can personally plead his case.

This is where the movie unfortunately becomes rather contrived. The three main acts are played well but the outcome is very predictable, sacrificing some of the narrative momentum as well as a good portion of its potential coolness.

Which is a shame, because what makes a Dick story into a good movie is a willingness to delve into the tricky morality questions the author raised in his many novels and short stories. He explored metaphysical themes like no sci-fi author I have ever read. The nature of what is real, of what constitutes our actual identity, took place in the construct of a person slowly becoming aware that their everyday world is an illusion created by powerful external forces. TAB stops just short of fully exploring that concept, choosing instead to settle for being a love story as opposed to being something truly challenging.

Therein lays the problem with almost all the adaptations done so far. Hollywood doesn't know how to make a movie that doesn't, for example, have a hero (Dick's stories did not). Hollywood thrives on sentiment; Dick, to put it lightly, forsook sentiment almost entirely. In Dick's world, what counted were not the actions of a hero but the heroism of the average person.

While I have enjoyed most of what's been adapted thus far, there hasn't yet been what I would call a "true" film made from the ideas Dick found so fascinating. When that day comes we will, I am sure, see a sci-fi movie that will truly set a new standard.

Until then, films like TAB, which choose to skirt the edges of thematic depth as opposed to diving whole-heartedly into it, are fine for passing the time. Nolfi's directing is efficient enough to give the story weight, if not substance, but it's a decent enough adventure that won't have you constantly checking your watch.

review by
Mary Harvey

22 October 2011

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