On DVD: The Adjustment Bureau

The best science fiction is often the kind that doesn’t feel like science fiction at all. Almost always, the genre’s most lauded stories and films earn that praise for never losing their human qualities in the face of elaborate story structure, futuristic props and set pieces and stylish action. That’s why Hollywood so often returns to the work of Philip K. Dick, a master of idea-based science fiction. Screenwriter George Nolfi makes his directing debut with an adaptation of Dick’s “Adjustment Team,” a story that possesses a true human factor that Nolfi weaves up through the concept’s intricacies and to the surface.

“The Adjustment Bureau” lacks for any reason to be labeled an action movie. The “action” of the film entails Matt Damon running away and throwing a few punches. The only intensity comes from chase sequences. Perhaps “romantic thriller” would be the best way to describe the film, for at its heart, “Adjustment Bureau” is a love story whose obstacles have been manifest into science fiction.

Damon stars as David Norris, a young up-and-coming politician who seems a shoo-in for winning one of New York’s U.S. Senate seats, but loses after an impulsive practical joke is caught on camera and affects public opinion. While writing his concession speech in the bathroom of the Waldorf, he bumps into Elise (Emily Blunt), a woman who captivates him instantly. She inspires him to deliver a candid speech that puts him in position for another run in four years, but disappears that evening without a trace. Days later they run into each other on a bus and David gets her number. All seems well, except that exchange wasn’t supposed to happen. In fact, David and Elise are not meant to be together period.

That’s according to the Adjustment Bureau, a team of men in fedoras that work for a mysterious Chairman who orchestrates the fate of all. The Chairman has agents working for him, such as Harry (Anthony Mackie) and Richardson (John Slattery) who see to it that things go according to plan. Harry, in particular, has long been assigned to ensuring David follows his path, as great things are in store for him. When Harry fails to make the one thing happen that will prevent David and Elise from reconnecting, David ends up seeing behind the curtain and learning the hard truth, one that he refuses to accept. He realizes he must find a way to outsmart the Bureau if he ever wants to be with her.

The classic “fate vs. free will” debate manifests itself quite poignantly in this film. Although overtly so at the onset, “The Adjustment Bureau” confronts the concept in a more direct way thanks to the brilliance of Dick’s concept. What makes this film execute it right is the ever-so-critical lead chemistry. Considering the plot revolves completely around whether David has control over his destiny with Elise, creating the viewer’s desire for the success of their relationship is Nolfi’s most crucial task. Luckily, Blunt and Damon light up the screen, especially Blunt, who gives Elise an attitude and a foul mouth to go along with her elegance. Only down the stretch in the film’s last sequence does their relationship feel forced or overblown.

As science fiction, “The Adjustment Bureau” manages to cover up issues of implausibility to make you understand how the Bureau itself works and functions and using what rules. They simply represent — in human form — that which we attribute to chance. They even have a fallibility to them, which adds a nice touch that few sci fi films open themselves up to, and it allows Nolfi to insert some humor to prevent the film from getting to self-serious. Some might desire to see the Bureau as a relentless and powerful group ala hard sci fi, but this film recognizes that not all science-fiction concepts can be so pristine and perhaps they can even benefit from a few scuff marks.

Not only does “The Adjustment Bureau” never lose sight of the human factor, but it also prioritizes it, which makes the film accessible to a wider audience. The film amounts to a story of love overcoming the odds, only the odds are guys in suits who can control the flow of the universe. The merging of these genres might lead to some sacrifices on both ends, but it makes for an enjoyable film with universal appeal.

4/5 Stars

The Adjustment Bureau
Directed by George Nolfi
Written by George Nolfi, Philip K. Dick (short story)
Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery


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