“The Adjustment Bureau” is the latest Philip K. Dick work to be processed through the Hollywood machine and end up on screen. Matt Damon is well cast as David Norris, a popular New York congressman who’s taking a run at senator. Just before Election Day, a silly scandal causes David a loss. Preparing his speech in the men’s washroom, Elise (Emily Blunt) mysteriously emerges from one of the stalls. The two fall for each other instantly but their encounter is cut short. That unlikely encounter is followed by another and then another. It’s almost as if the two were meant to be together. Unfortunately for them, it’s the opposite. The fate police, known as the Adjusters have been trying to keep the two apart, but screwed up, and the two keep meeting.
The adjusters capture David, and civilly tell him to forget about Elise and forget the adjusters exist. They inform him that the Adjustment Bureau has a plan for humanity and adjust the whole world behind the curtain to keep on schedule. But their office is in Manhattan. David doesn’t listen and continues to see Elise. That’s when the adjusters call in the big guns, an adjuster nicknamed The Hammer (Terrence Stamp), who despite his intimidating name, attempts to solve the problem with David through conversation.
There are two major problems with “The Adjustment Bureau.” The first is that the romance is a dud. David and Elise’s relationship is not very compelling, and when the adjusters start to chase them around, it’s hard to care. A movie about unrequited love should have a sense of heartbreak. It’s easy to see the characters care a lot about one another, but there’s no visceral feeling whatsoever in the audience.
The other major problem is the Adjustment Bureau itself. Nothing about the Bureau is ever explained and it’s hard to take seriously. The adjusters obey arbitrary rules that resemble a child’s fantasy game. In an unintentionally funny scene, when hurrying through the street, one adjuster’s hat blows off, his partner yells “the hat, the hat,” and the other man freaks out and runs back to get it. Later we learn that the hats have secret powers that enable the adjusters. Also, the adjuster’s power doesn’t work well around water. These rules are mysterious and a little silly.
There are other minor elements that aren’t believable and work to the movie’s disadvantage. A dissenting adjuster names Harry (Anthony Mackie) helps David for no explanation except that he’s “tired of it all.” Also, the ending is a cop out. The dialogue between Damon and one other character in that final scene suggests a rewrite was done to remove a cliché ending. However, the ending that was tacked on is the kind written by market research. It was designed to give the audience a warm feeling when leaving the theatre. It’s the kind of ending that insults every reasonably intelligent person watching.
Without being aware how closely the movie follows the source material, it’s easy to see how this movie could be a Dick story with little changes. Dick’s writing inhabits a world resembling paranoid schizophrenia where it seems possible that forces too powerful for human understanding lurk behind free will and a deterministic universe. The Adjustment Bureau fails to create a similar world. Also, Dick is a romantic at heart, and romance in his work is underrated. If “The Adjustment Bureau” is closely based on Dick’s short story then it proves that the storyteller is more important than the story.
** (out of 5)
David Jackson can be reached at email@example.com