If you’ve seen the trailer for The Adjustment Bureau, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was some sort of relentless chase , not unlike Paycheck, perhaps, though hopefully less abysmal. An adaptation of a Philip K Dick short story, it also appeared to contain all the usual trappings you might associate with the writer’s work: alternate layers of reality, an unfathomable conspiracy, and a lone protagonist who struggles to lift the curtain on the whole insane cabal.
On one level, this is precisely what The Adjustment Bureau is. It does, indeed, contain a male protagonist battling against a seldom seen, powerful organisation. But not, perhaps, in the way that its trailer, or its association with Philip K Dick, might suggest. The Adjustment Bureau is more like Dick’s work filtered through Michael Powell’s A Matter Of Life Or Death, or maybe Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life.
If you’re at a dinner party and want to sound incredibly erudite and witty, you could even say it’s less Franz Kafka and more Frank Capra. That’s sure to raise a chortle over the After Eights.
If nothing else, it’s a reminder of just how varied the films inspired by Philip Dick’s work can be. Blade Runner was a Metropolis-style fever dream of the future, Total Recall was an ultra-violent gun fantasy, while The Adjustment Bureau is a fantasy romance with an added dash of Phildickean bureaucracy and red tape.
Matt Damon stars as down-to-earth senator, David Norris, whose head is turned by pretty, feisty dancer, Elise (Emily Blunt). While the two share an immediate attraction, there’s a sinister organisation at work that is adamant that their relationship will develop no further.
Without spoiling huge chunks of the film’s events, that’s about all there is to the slight, yet intriguing story. Lighter on suspense than the movie’s trailer might suggest, The Adjustment Bureau has to get by instead on the sharpness of its dialogue and the warmth of its characters. Fortunately, writer/director George Nolfi’s script is engagingly light on its feet, in an old-fashioned Hollywood romance kind of way, and there’s a gentle chemistry between Damon and Blunt.
Those going into the cinema expecting the usual paranoid drama one might expect from Philip K Dick may be disappointed, and perhaps even slightly alarmed by the faint air of whimsy present in The Adjustment Bureau. The existential interrogation of even the loosely adapted Total Recall or Blade Runner are seldom in evidence, nor is the trippy gloom of the most faithful porting of the author’s work, A Scanner Darkly.
I wonder, too, what Dick would have made of a film so lacking in his biting cynicism. Relationships featured heavily in many of his stories, but they were seldom happy ones, and he certainly wasn’t an author intent on making his readers feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
If you’re prepared for this, The Adjustment Bureau is a pleasant, if slightly inconsequential fantasy with some sporadically good dialogue and dapper performances from John Slattery (Mad Men‘s Roger Sterling), The Hurt Locker‘s Anthony Mackie and Terence Stamp who, let’s face it, is always great in everything.
It’s difficult to escape the feeling later on in the film, however, that the Bureau, and, by extension, Nolfi, is making up the metaphysical rules as he goes along. There are numerous, very odd conversations about doors and hats that you may or may not find distractingly ridiculous, depending on your state of mind.
Perhaps it’s this aspect that makes The Adjustment Bureau‘s more dramatic moments less dynamic than they might otherwise have been. Say what you will about the trumpeting bombast of Inception, its more emotional moments packed a hefty wallop. By contrast, The Adjustment Bureau comes across as a little wan and tentative, its narrative lacking in the kind of gut-wrenching twist or moment of pathos to really break through the screen and grab you by the shoulders.
That said, it’s a stylishly shot film, making great use of New York’s most gothic locations to atmospheric effect. Its performances are uniformly good throughout, and there are even one or two moments when Nolfi almost had me jumping out of my seat.
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