Every once in a while an author will catch Hollywood’s eye and suddenly dozens of movies based on their works get greenlit in hopes of replicating a previous hit. One such author is Phillip K. Dick, who’s been the source of as many as seven major Hollywood productions since Blade Runner (based on his novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”) became a cult classic in 1982. This Phillip K. Dick feeding frenzy has given us blockbusters like Total Recall and Minority Report and some small scale gems like A Scanner Darkly, but it’s also brought us some forgettable duds like Paycheck and Next. Given that the latest Dick adaptation, The Adjustment Bureau, didn’t have the budget and pedigree of a Blade Runner or the medium-budget genre trappings of a Next, the best I could really hope from it was something of the “small scale gem” variety.
Matt Damon stars as David Norris, a politician looking to make a comeback after he lost a senatorial race amidst a minor scandal. Now working in the private sector, Norris is planning a return to politics but he can’t get a woman he met the ngiht of his concession speech out of his mind. This woman, Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), is a ballet dancer who similarly can’t seem to get Norris out of her mind. The two of them meet by chance on a bus one morning and agree to meet again. All seems to be going well for Norris but once he gets to the office shortly thereafter he finds that it’s filled with strange men who seem able to stop time and read minds. These men trap him and their leader, Agent Richardson (John Slattery), tells him that they’re a secret society of super powered beings that control the world and keep it going along a chosen path set by “the chairman.” They swear him to secrecy and tell him that according to the plan he can never see Elise Sellas again before sending him on his way. Norris is freaked out by this, but keeps his word not to tell anybody about this strange encounter. However, he is not dissuaded from trying to reunite with Elise, and his romantic obsession with her will lead him down a long strange trip that will change his perception of reality.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie about an adjustment bureau. Sure there are other movies about people who realize that their world is run by strange forces (The Matrix, Dark City, and Vanilla Sky come to mind), but nothing exactly like this. The Bureau itself is interesting in that it has a seemingly omnipotent power but is entirely human in the way it operates. The “agents” behave like frustrated workers and need to report up the ladder of a rigid chain of command. It’s never explained exactly what they are. Are they angels reporting to God himself? Maybe, but God (at least in his conventional western conception) is not someone who’s going to need a bureaucracy in order to do his bidding, especially not one this prone to accidents. Perhaps instead they are aliens who are merely playing god, not unlike the aliens who opt to intervene in human evolution by sending black monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But then why are they so focused on pleasing a single “chairman.” It’s never really explained, but that just leaves the audience to come up with explanations of their own.
That’s an interesting and original (albeit adapted) science fiction concept, but I feel like it’s never used to its full potential because it’s being used in service of a central story that simply does not have the same weight as its premise. In other words, why is all this science fiction simply being applied to a simple story of “boy meets girl, girl meets boy, they fall in love and will overcome all odds to stay together” storyline? That’s not to say that this central romance story is poorly executed. Damon and Blunt create a likable characters that you do want to see get together, and the film even has a decent science fiction explanation as to why they’re so in love as to brave a whole lot of obstacles in order to fulfill their love. I do wish that their story had led up to something other than a (literal) deus ex machina, but aside from that I wouldn’t call this a bad plot so much as an uninspired one. I guess I just feel like there are so many different stories that the bureau could have interceded in that would have been so much more dramatic and interesting that this sort of feels like a wasted opportunity.
I wonder if the story would have been more compelling if it had been told strictly from the perspective of the adjusters rather than the adjustees. I can imagine a version of this story where a frustrated “bureaucrat” learns something by dealing with the Damon storyline rather than the reverse. We see glimpses of the story from the adjusters perspective and these snippets generally interested me more than the rest of the film and I really would have liked to see more of the bureau’s inner workings. I suppose that’s me imagining another film rather than really analyzing the one that I’ve actually been given, which is a questionable practice, but that is what was going through my mind as I watched and that’s not what you want when you’re making a movie. Maybe I’m just being too picky; after all, the story they went with was perfectly serviceable and it made for a movie that was good. I just feel like going in a different direction with this concept could have turned a good movie into one that is very good.
*** out of Four