The work of celebrated sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick has enjoyed a storied relationship with the world of cinema to say the least, having bred classic works in their own right such as Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report, while also bestowing upon audiences the divisive A Scanner Darkly and Paycheck, as well as the undeniable stinkers Screamers and Next.
The latest Dick adaptation, The Adjustment Bureau, a loose retooling of his 1954 short story Adjustment Team, has suffered through a seemingly interminable gestation period, having been delayed from its previous September 2010 release date. Despite the erratic track record of Dick’s cinematic translations, Matt Damon – who has an uncanny knack for weathering critical and commercial failure, which has veered his way a fair amount recently – keeps expectations for The Adjustment Bureau unmistakably high.
David Norris (Damon) is a young, popular New York congressman who seems destined for an even brighter future. However, after a chance encounter with dancer Elise (Emily Blunt) and the subsequent pursuit of a relationship with her, he learns that there is a force out to prevent them from being together, a seemingly unstoppable fleet of cloak-clad figures who assure Norris that should he ignore their warnings, he will ruin both his own aspirations and those of Elise.
Beginning as what appears to be a faintly interesting muckraking political thriller, The Adjustment Bureau quickly devolves into a flagrantly silly sci-fi yarn complete with a narrative and aesthetic that – in some sort of catastrophic accident – quickly comes to resemble a trumped-up episode of The Twilight Zone. With countless G-Men on Norris’ tail – each somewhat (and rather lazily) resembling one of the Agents from The Matrix – and some hilariously self-effacing narrative jargon – try not to snicker as the goons quip terms like “ripple limit” and “decision tree” with a straight face – this is a film sorely in need of a sense of irony.
If there is anything to keep you interested during the slow build-up, it’s the juicy chemistry between Damon and Blunt, who give it their all despite the film’s generally muddled, flimsy attempts to juggle duties as a sci-fi-romantic meditation on fate and free will. Blunt is especially good, channelling the same sort of studied exasperation that made her the highlight of the otherwise turgid Gulliver’s Travels.
In as much as highlighting the minutiae that determines our day-to-day lives, the film is effective to a point, though hardly original, and absolutely lacking the conceptual cleverness of The Matrix or something more thoroughly romantic, like Sliding Doors. Indeed, while the film is awash in ripe ideas, they rarely resonate precisely because of the film’s woefully unintentional camp factor. Seemingly a running gag that the filmmakers staggeringly failed to pick up on, it is nevertheless easy to admire first time writer-director George Nolfi’s enthusiasm to simply run with the ball – dealing with metaphysics and existentialism in more popularly conceived detail than you might expect – but the various reveals offer few surprises, and the faux-mystique comes from that same school of misguided arbitrariness that led the hit show Lost to its doom in the eleventh hour.
In a depressingly perfunctory fashion, key plot strands unspool before the viewer in the frequently uninspired manner of raw exposition, with either several of the G-Men talking amongst themselves for our benefit or to Norris directly, robbing the film of most all of its invention and deviousness. If anything, one could argue that the film ultimately plays too fairly with the viewer; it begins coyly enough, yet abjectly fails to maintain even a superficial curtain of mystery, such that contrivance and convenience has abounded geometrically by the time act three begins. Still, after the first half hour, you’ll probably be able to work out the film’s trajectory if you’ve been paying attention.
Aside from one energetic chase sequence in the final reel – shamelessly pilfered from The Matrix though it is – the film is curiously lacking in energy, a complaint that one never expects to field in a Matt Damon action thriller of all things. While some may point out that Nolfi devotes more time to character and cause than frantic action, the film’s reach for sentiment falls short simply because the characters aren’t developed enough beyond the notion of a “plan”; they are for the most part shell-like archetypes, reinforcing the film’s stature as little more than a shiny B-movie, which it certainly has no aspirations to be. Consequently, as a legitimate reflection on love, its lack of verve and derivative nature makes it feel disingenuous and untruthful, and no amount of gravitas brought to proceedings by the likes of Terrence Stamp (as one of the lead baddies) can change that.
There are definitely some fine thematic touchstones here, certainly about the sacrifices humans are willing to make in the name of love, but its well-intended dialogue about the power of the heart is utterly betrayed by the incongruent manner in which these emotive moments mesh with the altogether more daft paranoia thriller elements. As a result, what could have been a poignant climax in more skilled hands is in fact more liable to incite an echo of sighs (even laughter) throughout the cinema.
Blunt and Damon have delightful chemistry, but this is still little more than a derivative, campy B-movie, which would be fine if it was at all what the filmmakers had intended. Still, it might be worth a pop if you fancy checking out some really awful contemporary dance (you’ll see).
The Adjustment Bureau opens in the U.K. and U.S. this Friday.
This article was first posted on March 1, 2011