Hollywood is not kind to Phillip K. Dick.
The strange part is that I think Hollywood would claim otherwise. “Look at how many times we’ve turned his work into movies,” they would say, and they might even think they’ve “improved” his work. But the typical tact in bringing a PKD story to the screen is to take his big idea, his hook, and build a rigidly formulaic action movie around it. I know people love “Total Recall,” but I think it’s a lot less subversive than it wants to be, and a lot more like most of the carbon copy Ahnold films of that era. And it is an unfortunate template for adapting his work, because it shortchanges much of what makes his literature so compelling and dense and worth revisiting.
George Nolfi’s “The Adjustment Bureau” has its own issues in terms of structure, but it works well in many ways, and overall, I thought it was surprising and even sort of touching. It is a sweet film, a love story first and a game about the notion of fate and how we make it second, and much of what I would consider good about the film comes down to the chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt.
David Norris, played by Damon, is a rising star in New York politics, and he is at a turning point early in the film when he meets Elise, played by Blunt, in a bathroom. And this awkward random moment turns into an instant spark of something, and Nolfi has done a great job of setting things in motion. There’s a playful quality to the film that I think is very strong, and there’s no real mystery to things. He reveals early on what the “big idea” is, and for once, we’re not dealing with what I would call science-fiction.
Late in his life, following what he called a “divine invasion,” PKD became obsessed with the metaphysical, but questions of the spirit and the soul have always been a major part of his work. For a guy working in what could be called a low art like pulp fiction, PKD made a very visible spiritual journey over the course of his publishing career. One of the reasons I think “Blade Runner” is such a special and accurate representation of the ideas in PKD’s work, if not a letter-faithful adaptation, is because the film’s real concern is the nature of the soul, and the importance of memory in identity, and the action in the film is secondary, a necessary moment but nothing more. The SF, the world itself, that’s an opportunity to set up these ethical dilemmas, and that’s what drives that film. Here, we are introduced to The Adjustment Bureau, a team of beings who serve Fate, who are sometimes called in to adjust people and situations according to the Plan. And in this particular case, that spark between David and Elise is not part of the Plan, and no matter how either of them feels about it, adjustments are going to have to be made.
Looking at the ad campaign, and reading repeated references to Nolfi’s work on “The Bourne Ultimatum,” you might be expecting an action movie here. Don’t. It’s not remotely an action movie. There are a few sequences that are kinetic and lively and, like I said earlier, playful, but it’s not an action movie. It is a character drama more than anything else, and there are a couple of fantastic elements here that just heighten the stakes between David and Elise. Questions are posed about the impact that we have on other people’s lives, and I wonder about these things in my own life, certainly. If my parents hadn’t moved to this place, and if I hadn’t met this person, and if this choice didn’t lead to this choice, and if I hadn’t been in this place at this time, then I wouldn’t have met my wife, and then I wouldn’t have my kids, and then this whole life of mine, everything I know right now, could have all been changed all the way back down that decision tree if one single choice had been made differently . If my parents had moved north instead of south, if I’d gone to this school instead of that one, then right now, who would I be? Where would I be? I have moments with my family where I feel like I know what my role in life is, finally, and I can’t imagine it any other way. If I had to fight for this life over the unknown alternative, I would. And in “The Adjustment Bureau,” those are the very personal stakes for David and Elise. It’s not a movie about saving the world or beating some comic book bad guy. It’s simply about making choices that go against logic and timing and everything else in pursuit of something that feels right, something that feels like it’s worth fighting for.
Matt Damon might be one of my favorite modern movie stars, and I think when people write about his career from a perspective of looking back at the whole thing, the story will be about what a stealth-level superfreak he really is. Matt Damon looks like All-American apple pie, and he’s got an earnest approachability that is very mainstream-friendly, but he makes eccentric choices, and he has a sly sense of the silly that undermines his outward appearance. I think he plays this rising political star with real credibility, and I’m sure if he ever decided that was a line of work he wanted to pursue, he could. And well. He also plays lovestruck well, and he’s not a kid about it. He’s a man, flattened by this woman who has entered his life, and determined to find a way to include her in whatever journey he’s on.
Emily Blunt has rarely had an opportunity to play this sort of free spirit before, and it suits her. She is appealing and vulnerable and she makes a suitable object of desire for David in the film. She’s worth the trouble. Nolfi gets that right between the two of them, and so the mechanics of the film are less important to me. I’m sure audiences will be divided on whether they buy into the way the Adjustment Bureau moves around using doors that fold space for them and magic fedoras, but I think Nolfi intentionally picked something visually simple, something he didn’t have to overexplain, and the way it works onscreen is interesting. We live in an age of visual fireworks that constantly seem to up the ante, a la next month’s “Sucker Punch,” but Nolfi made the choice to go simple. I liked it, and I think the ending’s biggest problem is that it lands with a whisper. It’s such a gentle movie overall that it left me with a slight case of “is that it?”
The human faces of the Bureau, played by “Mad Men” star John Slattery, Anthony Mackie, and Terrence Stamp, all do exactly what they’re asked to do, but they’re thankless roles. They are a device, something to serve as an obstacle for David and Elise. These guys are all great performers, and they make the most of their moments onscreen. They just aren’t given room to really go much deeper than the surface, which is just the nature of the script.
Still, much of the film is a pleasure, and it’s a very light, charming movie, like some undiscovered ’60s pop gem. This is a great date movie at a time when there aren’t many films out that I’d say that about. And while it is slight, it’s hard to deny the pull of seeing two actors this good engaged in such a well-choreographed dance. I’m curious to see where Nolfi goes from here, because this is not the sort of movie you make if you want to get into the giant franchise moneymaker business. Then again, he is the screenwriter of “Ocean’s 12,” so I think he’s got a perverse sense of how to play with franchise movies in the first place. Maybe that’s his signature, making films that play against the conventional wisdom of what they should be. And so far, I’m interested.
“The Adjustment Bureau” opens wide on Friday, March 4.