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Friday, May 27, 2011
'The Adjustment Bureau'
Puppet masters clutch all the strings
The Adjustment Bureau" is the latest Philip K. Dick adaptation to be brought to the big screen, and it's more faithful to the spirit of the author than most. Dick was always trying to lace grand metaphysical themes into the pulpy genre requirements of sci-fi, and "The Adjustment Bureau" is no different. Thus we get two hours of musing on destiny vs. free will, combined with some frantic chase scenes through the interdimensional portals of Manhattan. It's an imperfect fit, but one that Dick would recognize.
One can follow Dick's novels from the 1950s through the '70s and see the same story over and over again: A protagonist is trapped in an illusory world, created to deceive him by some over-arching and malevolent force.
The best Dick adaptations have captured this paranoid feeling of inhabiting a "rigged" reality, such as the androids who think they're human in "Blade Runner," or the drug-addled undercover narc who winds up spying on himself in "A Scanner Darkly." "The Adjustment Bureau" follows in this tradition; like "Total Recall" or "Minority Report," it's based on a short story by Dick (from 1954), which means the filmmakers have expanded on the central concept.
We meet a young, charismatic, progressive politician whose heart is in the right place, but who walks into a meeting early one day and sees the entire room being set-dressed like a scene for a movie, his campaign advisor standing slack-jawed and robotic as a bunch of men in black fry his brain with some electrical device. It turns out the politician's entire career is being molded and controlled by a vast shadowy conspiracy of men in dark suits.
The young politician is a Brooklyn boy made good, David Norris (Matt Damon), and the organization is, well, I won't say, but they aren't the Illuminati or shape-shifting lizards.
David has glimpsed the man behind the curtain, and he's not sure how to proceed. He's constantly monitored by his minders—played entirely poker-faced by Anthony Mackie, John Slattery and Terence Stamp—who look like 1950s FBI agents, but act like the KGB. (Fitting, since Dick mused that those two were one and the same.)
"They" reassure David that they're acting in his best interests, but that if he ever tells anyone about them, they will "reset" his brain. There's one other problem, though: He's a bit of a frat-boy type, known for acting on his impulses, and he's become smitten by Elise (Emily Blunt), a freewheeling bohemian dancer who is everything that an image-conscious politician should avoid. He meets her twice at random, and both times "they" intervene.
David is sure that it's true love, but the minders insist it's not part of the plan. What exactly is the plan, and who thought it up? Why must David's life conform to it? These are the questions that David is forced to ask, as it becomes clear that "destiny" is a prison with invisible bars.
He does what any good Hollywood hero would in this situation: He runs. He ditches the minders, finds the girl and frantically searches for an exit from this universe where nothing is ever a coincidence. But can one outrun the conspiracy?
Director/writer George Nolfi—a screenwriter on "Ocean's Twelve" and "The Bourne Ultimatum" making his directorial debut here—does a good job in the film's first half: Both Damon's and Blunt's characters are skillfully drawn, and the first meeting between them—in a hotel men's room—crackles with the sparks of attraction. David's big concession speech, after losing a bid for senate, is a great comment on the mendacious politics of image at practice in the United States today. When the larger conspiracy comes along, it seems a rather logical extension of the essential phoniness of all political posturing.
The second half gets a bit goofy, as David learns who's behind the secret plan, and how to foil his minders. The chemistry between Damon and Blunt keeps things watchable, though, and a late entry of the film's big special effect—which seems to be modeled on manga character Doraemon's "Anywhere Door"—provides some fun. And really, it's hard not to like a big studio flick which insists that it's a kiss—not an oversized gun or mutant super-power—that has the power to change the universe.