Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Film review: 'Adjustment Bureau' has little edge, but it's enjoyable

Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau.

By John Thomason

If most of Philip K.‭ ‬Dick’s writing was ahead of its time,‭ ‬the latest movie adaptation of his work,‭ ‬The Adjustment Bureau,‭ ‬is behind it.

The movie transforms Dick’s‭ ‬̓50s short story‭ ‬The Adjustment Team from a politically conscious story about free will and Cold War panic to a quaint,‭ ‬love-conquers-all story about free will and following your heart,‭ ‬consequences be damned.

It isn’t just that writer-director George Nolfi‭ (‬who penned‭ ‬The Bourne Ultimatum and‭ ‬Ocean’s Twelve‭) ‬has adapted a story for dads into a movie for moms‭; ‬it’s that he’s modified Dick’s dystopic work into something corny and comfortingly theistic,‭ ‬without so much as a hint of lingering cynicism.‭ ‬If you didn’t know better,‭ ‬you’d think the source material came from Harlequin’s science-fiction imprint.

The Adjustment Bureau opens promisingly,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬even for Dick’s fans.

Nolfi expands the political awareness of Dick’s story by changing the author’s real estate agent protagonist into an aspiring New York Senate candidate named David Norris‭ (‬Matt Damon‭)‬.‭ ‬Norris‭’ ‬party affiliation is never given,‭ ‬but judging by the luminaries he hobnobs with‭ – ‬Madeline Albright,‭ ‬Jesse Jackson,‭ ‬Mike Bloomberg and others appear as themselves‭ – ‬we can assume he’s a good Democrat.‭ ‬This is pretty much confirmed when,‭ ‬shortly before Election Day,‭ ‬Rupert Murdoch’s‭ ‬New York Post publishes a smear piece about Norris‭’ ‬rough-and-tumble past,‭ ‬causing him to drop a double-digit lead and crater toward an electoral defeat.

In the men’s bathroom of the convention center where he will give his concession address,‭ ‬Norris meets cute with a sassy hottie named Elise‭ (‬Emily Blunt‭)‬,‭ ‬who inspires him to abandon his canned,‭ ‬platitude-heavy speech and speak truthfully about the phony engineering required to be succeed in politics,‭ ‬right down to the proper amount of scuff on one’s dress shoes.‭ ‬Nolfi’s writing sparkles in this cerebral set-up,‭ ‬opening the doors for a biting satire on the politician as corporate puppet‭ – ‬a slave to machinations beyond his control.

The latter is,‭ ‬in fact,‭ ‬a major theme from Dick’s story:‭ ‬We are slaves,‭ ‬though we don’t know it.‭ ‬Free will is a myth.‭ ‬We’re really being controlled by a team of dapper men acting behind the scenes,‭ ‬with godlike powers,‭ ‬to ensure that everything goes according to their blueprints for the future.‭ ‬The main character,‭ ‬in this case Norris,‭ ‬creates ripples in the plan by seeing behind the invisible curtain and communicating directly with these mysterious controllers of fate.

Nolfi switches things up by making Norris‭’ ‬quest to be reunited with Elise the crux of the drama‭ (‬in Dick’s story,‭ ‬the protagonist is already married,‭ ‬and love is not an issue‭)‬,‭ ‬and,‭ ‬in the process,‭ ‬the potential for a dynamite political satire is discarded.‭ ‬When one of the Adjustment Bureau members falls asleep on the job,‭ ‬Norris winds up meeting Elise a second time and scoring her digits‭ – ‬a grave deviation from the Plan.‭ ‬Norris spends the rest of the picture trying to find Elise,‭ ‬over a period of months and even years,‭ ‬assisted only by a disillusioned Adjustment Bureau agent who has gone rogue‭ (‬played by Anthony Mackie‭)‬.

There are shades of recent science fiction films throughout.‭ ‬The idea of a man realizing he’s in a controlled environment by stealing a romance resembles‭ ‬The Truman Show,‭ ‬while the overarching theme of love thwarting all scientific gimmickry conjures Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.‭ ‬And the thought that your mind is being shepherded by a bunch of men existing in some metaphysical nether region triggers‭ ‬Inception.

But compared,‭ ‬at least,‭ ‬to Christopher Nolan’s overrated,‭ ‬overplotted,‭ ‬overcooked mind-boggler,‭ ‬The Adjustment Bureau is a breezy walk in the park,‭ ‬and ultimately a hell of a lot more enjoyable.‭ ‬Damon and Blunt have satisfying chemistry,‭ ‬and Nolfi regularly provides them with interesting things to say.‭ ‬It’s an example of entertaining fluff,‭ ‬a guilty pleasure carried by an old-fashioned,‭ ‬buoyant tone.‭

But those looking for a faithful Dick adaptation a la‭ ‬A Scanner Darkly‭ ‬would do best to skip this one.

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU.‭ Director:‭ ‬George Nolfi‭; ‬Cast:‭ ‬Matt Damon,‭ ‬Emily Blunt,‭ ‬John Slattery,‭ ‬Anthony Mackie,‭ ‬Terence Stamp‭; ‬Distributor:‭ ‬Universal‭; ‬Rating:‭ ‬PG-13‭; ‬Opens:‭ ‬Friday

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