Watching any movie based on something by Philip K. Dick feels like cheating.
Here’s why: First, because the dude was a fantastic science fiction author, constantly pushing the boundaries of the genre with his works (I’m a nerd, sue me). And since his writing was so fantastic, multi-layered and groundbreaking, nearly every film based on one of his works – “Blade Runner,” “A Scanner Darkly,” “Minority Report” – turns out being the same way. Those films, with their depictions of a dystopian and dark future, lived up to Dick’s legacy. I’m going with Deckard from “Blade Runner” as Harrison Ford’s best character, and if you’re a Han Solo fan, deal.
The latest redo of Dick’s work, “The Adjustment Bureau” – which director/screenwriter/producer George Nolfi adapted from the 1954 short story “Adjustment Team” – really, really wants to be that good, but happiness just isn’t something that works within the author’s world. The original short story ended on a somewhat sigh of relief, but none of Dick’s works are truly gleeful or hopeful; they’re all infused with a certain resigned hopelessness, an inevitability of our future society’s shortcomings. “The Adjustment Bureau,” however, depends on a love-is-supreme message, one obviously meant to resonate with audiences but which instead will leave you wanting more.
The film is centered around David Norris (Matt Damon), a young Congressman who grew up in Brooklyn and is running for senator of New York. Though he’s leading his opponent by six points in the polls, his history as a “bad boy” begins to come out – a picture of him mooning some people at a bar during a college reunion runs in the New York Post – and soon it’s the night of the election, and he’s lost. While practicing his concession speech, he randomly meets and shares a kiss with modern dancer Elise (Emily Blunt), who inspires him to be honest; a few minutes later, instead of congratulating his opponent while at the podium, Norris comes clean about all the money and focus groups that went into his campaign and explains how politics is a tough place for authenticity. Who knew?
Though Norris loses the Senate seat, his speech gathers him a bunch of new supporters, and soon after Norris is accepting a new job and considering running again in four years. And, once again by chance, he runs into Elise on a bus, this time with more flirting and the offering of her phone number. The only thing is, Norris was never supposed to be on that bus at all, never supposed to see Elise again – at least, that’s not part of The Plan.
The Plan, obviously, is the mapped-out version of our lives we’re all supposed to follow, the flowchart that keeps working toward our eventual fate. And when Norris further sparks his relationship with Elise, he diverges from that plan, inspiring the intervention of the Adjustment Bureau, men in suits, trench coats and fedora hats who must figure out a way to get Norris and Elise separated again. When Norris runs into them modifying the memories of everyone at his office, however, the gig is up – and his glimpse behind the Wizard of Oz-like veil changes his life immeasurably.
What follows is a race against fate, a showdown that pits Norris against what these all-knowing, all-powerful, very-well-dressed guys say is his correct future and what he believes in his heart. His unflinching desire to do what he thinks is best and simultaneous desires to protect Elise and her future while also becoming a successful politician push and pull him in different directions, leading him to altercations with three members of the Adjustment Bureau: Harry (Anthony Mackie), who is sympathetic and understanding to Norris’s plight; Richardson (John Slattery), truly committed to their mission but also the bearer of many hilariously weary wisecracks about what a pain in the you-know-what Norris is; and Thompson (Terence Stamp), a threatening baddie who will do whatever to make Norris bend to his will.
There’s a lot of talk about free will here, as Norris struggles to understand both how his own decisions have affected his life and whether the plan for him will actually make him happy. These philosophical musings never get too deep, but they give a certain weight to the flick, especially when Damon gets all frustrated and sarcastic. Mackie is a fantastic actor, almost too good for this film – if you’ve seen “The Hurt Locker,” you know what I mean – and both he and Slattery bring a certain ease to their roles, which helps make their characters’ powerful abilities believable. Harry and Richardson don’t flaunt anything, instead displaying a nonchalance that makes their threats as scary as the ones in “Dark City,” an amazing 1998 film that had a similar premise. In “Dark City,” aliens toyed with humans’ lives and manipulated us for their own amusement; the movie was far more depressing but also more impactful.
Because while everyone in “The Adjustment Bureau” does a good job and the film effectively raises some thought-provoking questions about the links between religion, fate, faith, true love and free will, it lacks a certain something to truly jettison it into awesome territory. Though there are a few chases and some interesting tricks involving what’s behind opened and closed doors (think “The Matrix Reloaded”), there isn’t enough action or any one specific scene to burn into your memory; since the film ties up neatly, there aren’t lingering questions that will keep you talking. “The Adjustment Bureau” is too rooted in the present – with cameos from political commentators like Wolf Blitzer and Jon Stewart – and too tidy, keeping it from the upper echelons of “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report.”
For older teens, however, “The Adjustment Bureau” may be a good introduction to the sci-fi author, and there’s not too much questionable material in it, despite its PG-13 rating. There’s some cursing, mention of a drug overdose, one sex scene (which is mainly implied; you see the two characters kissing while bare from the shoulders up and later sleeping in bed together, but no actual nudity), and a car accident with some blood but no fatalities. Emotionally, all those discussions about our own identities and what makes us may be a little too heavy for younger teens, but older teens may be intrigued by the existentialism of some of it.
Is it wrong to fault a film for trying to please its audiences? Not necessarily, because “The Adjustment Bureau” is good while it lasts – but it won’t stick with you. When it comes to adaptations of Dick’s short stories and novels, Deckard is still king.