Movie Review: The Adjustment Bureau- A Slightly Messy Film in Tone that Attempts to Balance High Concept with the Typical Hollywood Standard

Author Philip K. Dick has been an unconventional and constant influence on the science-fiction productions in Hollywood for a long while. His novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, while a few years ago eclectic director Richard Linklater adapted one of his more obscure novellas that came out to be A Scanner Darkly. And now one of Dick’s short subject stories known as the “Adjustment Team” has been adapted into a full feature film at the hands of screenwriter George Nolfi with his directorial debut. Nolfi has been behind the scenes as a writer for quite a while with some convoluted and disorganized screenplays such as Ocean’s Twelve and the extremely inaccurate adaptations of both Timeline and The Bourne Ultimatum. However, his directorial debut isn’t necessarily as monotonous as his writing has been in the past. Perhaps it’s the short story that allowed some minor experimentation to expand the story for a full feature because ultimately the film The Adjustment Bureau comes off slightly thought provoking and intriguing. But that feeling only lasts a short time in this strange hybrid of a science-fiction film combined with a marginally comedic romantic film. At the thematic heart of The Adjustment Bureau is the idea between free will and fate, a conceptual idea that is inevitably left behind in a deviation towards a more Serendipity theme focusing on love triumphing influence. Instead of being on a higher level of thought provocation, which would have meant respecting the average audience, Nolfi just relies on the relationship of his film instead of the brilliant concept Philip K. Dick set up in his short story.

While the idea of free will and fate is explored slightly in The Adjustment Bureau it is dealt with rather superficially blatantly explaining the concept to the audience in a lecture instead of allowing the idea to build on its own. In the middle of this cosmic battle is David Morris (Matt Damon), a rowdy bad boy Congressman who is seeking a Senator seat in the state of New York. However, on the night of his loss awaiting the time to give his concession speech he has what seems to be a by chance encounter with a beautiful woman named Elise (Emily Blunt). While their moment is fleeting there is a genuine connection between the two leaving David flabbergasted and inspired. Behind the scenes there is a planetary bureaucracy known as the Adjustment Bureau, which makes sure that the world and individuals make their choices according to the ultimate plan that aids the better good. David’s choices and distractions in regards to wanting to be with Elise strays his fate, leaving the Bureau no choice but to threaten David with a memory erase to prevent their existence from being known and keep the plan in the right direction. Of course one can see why Damon was attracted to the project as the film follows his view of feeling and emotion trump logic and equation no matter what. But that is what keeps the film from staying on the path of being truly conceptual relating to individual choice versus collective ideas of the greater good. Instead of it being a set in modern day science-fiction take on an Ayn Rand novel The Adjustment Bureau instead becomes a Rousseau-esque exploration of feelings being the ultimate decision architect rather than choice.

It’s an odd script from the get go as the film tries to balance this slightly romantic comedy tone with the broader conceptual ideas that are usually only explored in science-fiction. George Nolfi has a hard time focusing on either the awkward and charming undertones of David and Elise’s romantic encounters and the ominous and powerful influence the Bureau has on every day choices. The supposed architects of fate don’t really seem to be all knowing and are in fact very human when it comes to error allowing a bit of comedy throughout the first half of the film with supporting actors John Slattery (TV’s “Mad Men) and Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker). But the tone is all over the place once the second half introduces the very serious and determined Thompson, played by the always incredible Terrance Stamp, who is determined to put things back on track no matter how it happens. It’s admirable to see a director attempt larger concepts but those ideas suffer due to a sporadic tone and an obvious dedication to basic Hollywood storytelling principles such as love conquers all. The bureaucratic control is reminiscent of a truly aw-inspiring science-fiction masterpiece Brazil, while the basic premise of reconstructing lives and direction reminds us of a far superior picture entitled Dark City. Nolfi is anchored down with the typical Hollywood focus on a relationship when the concept is much bigger than that and requires much more attention and focus. This ultimately brings the film down as the superficial subject matter drains the energy and inventiveness the film could have ultimately exuded.

Luckily the cast doesn’t disappoint considering that Damon projects usually lack a bit of zest and emotional diversity that are the supposed catalysts for us to sympathize with his characters. Instead Damon allows some emotion, desperation, and confusion to show rather successfully throughout the film bringing us along with his struggle to eventually find peace with the void that haunts him. Emily Blunt offers a great deal of elegance to the role as dancer Elise giving us all a reason to understand why Damon’s character David yearns for her. Without that chemistry the entire film would have spiraled out of control and been rather pointless. The rest of the cast that makes up the Bureau brings select strengths to the film. Anthony Mackie is probably the most lacking in his role due to his inability to deliver lines in a genuine fashion, and the scenes that he has a majority of the dialogue appear tense and dreary. The liveliness of John Slattery, who offers a great deal of tongue in cheek delivery, as well as the remarkable Terrance Stamp really ignites the screen with each of their unique abilities. It certainly goes to show that having a good cast can make all the difference.

Philip K. Dick once prophetically stated, “Push philosophy and theology to their ultimate terms, and you discover nothing.” The Adjustment Bureau could have been a cinematic delivery of a cosmic joke that embodied the short story work of Dick. However, it becomes stilted and superficial as the story moves from free will vs. fate to love vs. influence. Both are important but one is larger in scope and deserves to be explored in its conceptual entirety. Once you begin on the path of a larger theory and relent due to typical Hollywood norms you begin to go down the slope of simplifying your cause. While the film is slightly sloppy in tone, perhaps due to the awkward hybrid of attempting to have comedy in such a conceptual and emotion focused idea, the delivery isn’t appalling. Instead we can see George Nolfi in his first directing gig as someone who is trying to balance high concepts with Hollywood standards and that is certainly something that deserves respect.

Grade: C+

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