Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: George Nolfi
Stars: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Terence Stamp, John Slattery, Anthony Mackie.
There have been some great movies based on stories written by prolific, Hugo-Award winning sci-fi writer Phillip K Dick – Minority Report, Total Recall, the animated A Scanner Darkly, and of course the classic Blade Runner. But there have also been a number of misfires, including John Woo’s Paycheck, Impostor, Next, and Screamers. George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau, adapted from a 1954 short story, falls somewhere between the two extremes.
It is a slickly written affair, but there are a number of problems with it. Many of these are due mainly to Nolfi significantly changing Dick’s original story, stretching the basic premise to turn it into something completely different. He develops it into more of a chase thriller that contrasts markedly with the original’s study of the nature of predestination. Nonetheless it contains many of Dick’s usual themes and motifs – alternate realities, paranoid conspiracies, and a protagonist on the run from shadowy forces.
David Norris (the very busy Matt Damon) is a politician destined to become President. But when he loses an election bid for a Senate seat his career threatens to go off the rails before it has even started. While preparing his concession speech in a hotel bathroom David meets for Elise (Emily Blunt), a beautiful ballet dancer. It was supposed to be a chance meeting that would never occur again. But David’s feelings towards Elise will upset both their lives.
That is when a group of mysterious men step in and “readjust” his life to get it back on track, according to a grand plan that has already been mapped out. These mysterious men are perfectly dressed in 1950s style suits, and wear hats that give them the power to move freely through the city via a series of portals hidden from the view of mere mortals. They are agents for a mysterious being referred to as “the Chairman”, who is apparently the architect of everything that happens in the world. He has mapped out Norris’ future, and his agents try to remove all memory of Elise from David’s life.
But sometimes love is more important and Norris is prepared to risk everything and sets in motion a cat-and-mouse game through Manhattan as he tries to outwit his pursuers. His actions will change not only his life but also Elise’s. If David follows their plan he will become President, and Emily a world famous ballet dancer.
The Adjustment Bureau explores notions of predestination versus free will and reason versus emotion, but leaves many questions unanswered. Why have these agents of fate chosen Norris for greatness when he hasn’t shown any signs of such potential before? Why don’t they just adjust Elise’s life instead as she has a lower public profile? Why have they only decided to show themselves now over Norris’ indiscretions when there are far more troubling things happening in the world? Nolfi poses some difficult questions about the choices we make, but he never quite satisfactorily answers them Consequently, the plot is full of holes and the ambitious film collapses under the weight of closer scrutiny.
The film becomes something of a romantic thriller, and this element is much more successful than the sci-fi plot line. The film is also more fantasy than sci-fi. Nolfi, who is better known as a writer of Ocean’s Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum, etc, makes his directorial debut here. While he handles the action scenes quite well, he never quite seems to get a handle on the sophisticated plot that drives the film.
Damon has a solid presence and he brings unassuming charm to his performance as the conflicted politician. He establishes a wonderful rapport with Blunt that makes the premise that Norris seems prepared to risk everything for the love of a beautiful woman all too believable. Blunt brings spark and sly wit to her role. Terence Stamp lends his authorative presence to the film as Thompson, the head adjuster who is brought in when things go pear shaped. His urbane and silky smooth delivery of his lines is effective and he brings an air of menace to his role. John Slattery (from tv’s Mad Men, etc) and Anthony Mackie also register strongly as two agents of the bureau.
There are some good visual effects here as Norris and his pursuers move around Manhattan via a series of portals. John Toll’s cinematography looks stunning, and Nolfi makes good use of locations to add atmosphere. Thomas Newman’s synthesiser-driven score also adds to the film’s mood.
An intriguing blend of sci-fi and action thriller, The Adjustment Bureau is not a high-concept film like the recent Inception, or even The Matrix. Indeed it does become a little cliched by the end. It may not be the best adaptation of Dick’s work, but The Adjustment Bureau does manage to hold the interest for much of its running time.