Philip K. Dick film adaptations are numerous and have a tendency to be very variable in both quality and tone. The better offerings usually evoke the authors sense of harshness and paranoia, taking his hard sci-fi themes and pitching them in a hard sci-fi manner. The Adjustment Bureau on the other hand under the guidance of writer and first time director George Nolfi takes the themes posited by Dick’s ‘The Adjustment Team’ and sets them somewhat as a back drop rather than a central thesis to what is an unexpectedly well handled love story. But has he missed a trick by not staying more true to the harsh nihilism that I’m sure Dick himself would have approved of?
The plot itself mainly concerns Matt Damon’s David Norris, a congressional candidate who appears to be the darling of modern US politics. Young, confident, rebellious and on the cover of GQ magazine, his campaign to be senator for New York seems unstoppable. That is until some indiscretions committed during his time at college come to light and he subsequently loses an election he fully expected to win. Enter Elise (Emily Blunt), a mysterious British dancer who meets and subsequently kisses him on the eve of his concession speech. The meeting has a profound effect upon Norris and his ensuing performance in conceding the election catapults him to political stardom. The next time they meet on a New York City bus (apparently by chance) their chemistry becomes ever more apparent to both of them, but as they part it is made very clear to Norris that he can never see her again.
Why? Well no one seems to know, but an organisation of shady well attired men in fedoras inform him that meeting Elise for a second time and indeed meeting her ever again was and is not part of ‘The Plan’. He meets two of these men, Mitchell and Richardson (played in a perfectly passable fashion by Anthony Mackie and Mad Men’s John Slattery) who, with no little exposition, inform him of the Adjustment Bureau. The eponymous ‘bureau’ consists of a vast swathe of similarly clothed gentlemen who enforce the plan of the ‘Chairman’ (take whatever religious connotations from this you wish, although the film doesn’t seek to explain the nature or indeed the purpose of this shadowy figure) by intervening in the affairs of humans in such a manner as to keep ‘The Plan’ on course. Norris however doesn’t take kindly to their demands and voila; the high concept is reduced substantially from what could have been a refreshingly emotionally grounded intellectual exploration of the notions of fate and free will to a mere (albeit interesting) framing device for a romantic drama to play out to.
The more I think about it, the more I see The Adjustment Bureau as being but a mere shadow of the film it could have potentially been. It feels strikingly edgeless and the ending that Nolfi punted for after much to-ing and fro-ing with script edits and reshoots seems like a missed opportunity. Not to give it away but I myself was desperately hoping for a Brazil style finale with which the film could have jarred audience expectations and given them something to really mull over after they left the screening. Yes, in light of the films overall Hollywood sheen and Matt Damon’s general on-screen persona the film may not easily lend itself to such an unusual and unforgiving take on proceedings, but even so I still would have loved the film to take it’s premises to their more depressing, yet thought provoking and seemingly more logical conclusions.
This is made ever more tragic when the fledgling relationship between Damon’s David and Blunt’s Elise is handled actually quite well. The scene in which they first stumble into one another (in the gent’s of all places) is a surprisingly offbeat and well judged brief encounter and something which from the get-go sets the tone for what really is a promising opening hour. Their relationship does actually provide a fairly strong emotional pull to a film that on the surface may seem all high concept and sterile, earnest plot exposition. A hammer-blow ending could have elucidated the tragedy of their situation so much better and could have elevated the film to more than just a high-budget well written romance with pretentions toward something more substantial.
The Adjustment Bureau is perfectly entertaining popcorn fare with something only slightly deeper to offer in terms of intellectual nourishment. That it fails to commit to its less mainstream aspirations however is disappointing. Whilst some sci-fi can be too dry in its philosophical theorising the film could’ve got away with a much more serious take on its themes considering the easy rapport of its leads. But unfortunately, as it edges toward its finale, the film has its sights set firmly on our heartstrings in the broadest manner possible when simply carrying out what it had threatened to do all along would have twisted the knife so much more.