Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Review: "The Adjustment Bureau"

It's no wonder the work of Philip K. Dick has proven such fertile ground for filmmakers, forming the seed for movies like "Blade Runner" and "Minority Report."

The science fiction writer, who died young nearly 30 years ago, specialized in stories with an existentialist bent, where the integrity of the human mind has been compromised by technology or some sort of outside control. The recurring question posed in Dick's stories boils down to, "What if my thoughts are not really my own?"

"The Adjustment Bureau," based on a short story by Dick, is a middlebrow mind trip wearing the clothes of psychological thriller. It's an effective, engaging picture, thought not on par with the other Dick films just mentioned.

Matt Damon plays David Norris, an ambitious young politician who stumbles upon the secret of the Adjustment Bureau, a team of celestial meddlers -- or do-gooders, from their perspective -- who can alter reality, even people's decisions.

David spends the rest of the movie on the run trying to thwart the schemes of the bureau, all in the name of love for a woman he once bumped into by chance.

Or was it chance? As a senior honcho for the bureau (Terence Stamp) informs David, letting humans make their own choices isn't considered safe: "We tried free will ... you gave us the Dark Ages for five centuries."

After four terms in the U.S. House as its youngest elected member ever, David stages a bid for the New York Senate seat that ends disastrously. The only good thing about it is bumping into Elise (Emily Blunt) in the men's room while he's rehearsing his concession speech. It's a quirky, electric meeting in which Blunt and Damon throw off some real romantic sparks.

A few weeks later David is starting a new job at his best friend's (Michael Kelly) law firm when he walks into the board room and finds it filled with men wearing old-fashioned suits and fedora hats zapping his buddy's brain with some kind of gizmo as he stands motionless like a frozen statue.

At first I thought the 1960s-era clothing the bureau men (they all seem to be male) wear is meant to underline the association to "Mad Men" star John Slattery, who plays Richardson, the bureau boss assigned to clean up David's messes. But it could also be a nod to Dick's mid-century heyday.

It seems the case worker (Anthony Mackie) assigned to David fell asleep on the job, allowing him to walk in on the bureau's mind-zapping, as well as stumble upon Elise again on the bus. After a brief chase, Richardson decides to lay it out for him: The Bureau are the enforcers of a cosmic Plan written by an entity referred to only as The Chairman. Events are meant to arrive at a prescribed destination, and any time humanity makes the wrong choice, the bureau is sent in to nudge things in the right direction.

For reasons these heavenly bureaucrats won't reveal, David and Elise are not meant to be together, despite the strong pull they feel. Richardson also hints that if David is willing to play ball, great things lie in his future.

George Nolfi, a veteran screenwriter making his directorial debut, crafts a fine-looking film with enough emotional coloring to paper over the sinkholes of logic the plot keeps swerving around. (For example, aren't the case workers also part of the Plan? In which case, wouldn't they be infallible?)

Less a rumination on free will than a potboiler with some intellectual pretensions, "The Adjustment Bureau" is a pleasant enough diversion that takes a pass on grander ambitions. At least, that's what I think I think.

3 stars out of four

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