The Adjustment Bureau

In The Adjustment Bureau, screenwriter and first time director George Nolfi expands and elaborates on a Philip K. Dick short story that imagines a vast bureaucracy of mysterious beings pulling the strings on humanity, arranging everyone’s lives to fit a vastly complicated, pre-determined plan.

The story opens in the middle of a political campaign as charismatic young Senate candidate David Norris (no, not that one) takes to the stump. His campaign, managed by shrewd best friend Charlie (Michael Kelly), is going well until an embarrassing photograph of Norris at a party is leaked to the press and his support collapses. While preparing his concession speech in a hotel bathroom, Norris meets free-spirited dancer Elise (Emily Blunt), who laughs at his nervousness, kisses him on the lips and leaves him utterly besotted.

Some time later, Norris bumps into Elise on a bus. Kismet, you might think, but a group of mysterious men have been following the politician with the aim of stopping him from ever meeting Elise again. When he walks into his office and discovers a squadron of futuristic stormtroopers engaged in wiping his staff’s memories, Norris is captured by smooth-talking Mr Richardson (John Slattery from Mad Men) and given a unique peek behind the universal curtain.

These cosmic agents, in well-cut suits and sporting natty fedoras, operate under the control of an all-powerful Chairman, tinkering with fate to nudge mankind in a pre-set direction. Norris is told that Elise is “not part of the plan” and that the Bureau has decided what’s best. They also threaten to wipe his mind if he tries to find her. Clinging to deep-rooted notions of free will and fortune, and determined to track down the love of his life, Norris resists. He finds an ally in Harry (Anthony Mackie), a sympathetic agent who patiently explains how everything works and sets him on his way.

Dick’s novels and short stories have provided sci-fi screenwriters with a packed slate of mind-bending films, from Ridley Scott’s eternal Blade Runner to Richard Linklater’s curious cartoon A Scanner Darkly. The Adjustment Bureau is not the worst adaptation of the writer’s work (that would be a toss-up between John Woo’s Paycheck and Lee Tamahori’s Next) but the film nevertheless falls into the same trap as many of its predecessors by taking the germ of a bizarre, provocative idea and expanding it to fit the standard form of multiplex Hollywood cinema. The original short story had no pair of star-cross’d lovers, was set mostly in a suburban garden and featured a talking dog in a pivotal role. After a snappy, head-scratching set-up, Nolfi’s lop-sided film disintegrates into a drearily breathless, mechanical chase, with Damon and Blunt thrown together in a gallop around photogenic New York landmarks, pausing only to clarify the philosophical nuances in clumsy gulps.

Nolfi’s attempt to blend Dick’s fantastical notions with a political conspiracy thriller and a romantic melodrama – and then justify it all - means that all traces of Dick’s formless dread and itchy paranoia fade into the background. What replaces it is not nearly as interesting.

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