Judge Dan Mancini will choose free will.
"You don't have free will, David. You have the appearance of free will."—Thompson
Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick's work has a relatively poor track record on the silver screen, though Hollywood has persistently tried to spin box office gold from his prose for the past 30 years. Sure, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner is a masterpiece (despite diverging significantly from Dick's novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, upon which it is based) and A Scanner Darkly is solid if more than a little pretentious, but nearly everything else is either mediocre (Total Recall, Minority Report) or downright forgettable (Impostor, Paycheck). So, here we go again with first-time director George Nolfi's The Adjustment Bureau, a feature-length loose adaptation of Dick's short story, "Adjustment Team."
Facts of the Case
New York Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity) loses his bid for a US Senate seat because he's just too earthy, real, and full of integrity. His chance encounter with enigmatic dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada), to whom he is instantly attracted, sets off a chain of events in which two mysterious gentlemen in trench coats—Richardson (John Slattery, Mad Men) and Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker)—inform him that a future relationship with Elise is not in "The Chairman's" plan for David's life. If he doesn't avoid the woman, his mind will be erased. Refusing to accept that his existence is ruled by fate and not free will, David presses on with his romantic pursuit of Elise, drawing the ire of Thompson (Terence Stamp, Superman II), a "caseworker" far more sinister than Richardson or Mitchell.
In her writings on totalitarianism as part of her reportage on the trial of Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann, political theorist Hannah Arendt coined the term "the banality of evil." Her idea was that the world's great evils weren't the result of the aberrant depravity of mustache-twirling psychopaths, but the mindless adherence by civil servants and bureaucrats to codes, laws, and social constructs defined by totalitarian states. In Arendt's view, when it comes to producing human suffering on a mass scale, the grand schemes of larger-than-life supervillains can't match the common man's surrender of his own moral identity. The deep sense of paranoia at the foundation of Philip K. Dick's fiction is informed by this sense of evil's banality. "The Adjustment Team" is part horror story, part boring slice-of-life, compelling because of the contrast between the terror with which its protagonist, Ed Fletcher, is struck when, due to a bureaucratic mishap, he accidentally witnesses the inhabitants of sector T137 de-energized and frozen during an "adjustment," and the matter-of-fact demeanor of The Clerk and the other agents of fate as they go about the (mundane to them) business of performing the adjustment of fate's master plan. Unfortunately, George Nolfi's movie adaptation lacks Dick's sense of irony and delicately stated paranoia. Instead of drab civil servant types, Nolfi's agents of fate (called caseworkers) are slick, well-dressed, non-descript, and more than a little sinister. They're much hipper in a suave early-'60s sort of way than the schlubs in "Adjustment Team," who interfere with the main character's free will with all of the unthinking just-doing-my-job automation of DMV lifers.
Constrained by the demands of drama, Nolfi turns Dick's terse meditation on free will into an action-romance about a man having to choose between true love and a great political destiny. It's silly, a bit pretentious, and entirely predictable. In fact, I was surprised by just how unsurprised I was by anything that happened in the movie—despite going in with little knowledge of its story beforehand (I hadn't even read Dick's short story). In the feature-length commentary included in this set, Nolfi talks in detail about how he intended the movie to be disorienting for viewers, how he kept the settings and characters realistic so that the slow revelation of the caseworkers as supernatural beings or science fiction constructs would be unsettling. Perhaps it was a failure of marketing, or the movie's title or costume design gave away too much too quickly, but I was never unsettled. It was obvious almost from the first exchange of dialogue between John Slattery and Anthony Mackie that The Adjustment Bureau was no simple political potboiler or romantic drama.
But even assuming that The Adjustment Bureau's trailer told audiences too much about the movie's central conceit, the gimmick would still compel if the movie were the rich blend of thriller, romance, and science fiction that Nolfi intended. It's not. The Adjustment Bureau is a romance that is set against an ill-defined political backdrop (that goes way too far in making a saint of David Norris) and that uses science fiction as a way of staging its romantic climax as an action-packed dash through a variety of New York locations. There's no political thriller to speak of, and Dick's philosophical speculation has been so thoroughly watered down that The Adjustment Bureau doesn't leave you pondering its profundity—the movie's ideas are both mundane and tidily presented through dry exposition (mostly delivered by Terence Stamp). One sad side-effect of Nolfi's ambitions is that the movie's romantic storyline is robbed of richness by the undeveloped political and science fiction elements. That's too bad because both Matt Damon and Emily Blunt deliver fine lead performances, and the duo has genuine onscreen chemistry.
To be clear, The Adjustment Bureau isn't a bad film. There is much to recommend it, in fact: fine performances, beautiful locations, some cleverly executed action (created with a minimum of intrusive CGI), and rock-solid cinematography by John Toll (Braveheart). But beneath its slick surface, the movie feels very much like the work of a director who didn't quite have a grasp on his story. Everything about The Adjustment Bureau is undercooked and not-quite-right.
As I previously mentioned, The Adjustment Bureau was lensed by two-time Oscar-winner John Toll, who keeps the film's look crisp, sleek, and thoroughly modern. The many New York locations are delivered with a muted color scheme, emphasizing wintery blues and grays along with subtle shadow detail and firm black levels. Toll's work comes across beautifully in this 1080p/VC-1 transfer at the movie's original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1.
The dialogue-heavy story rarely pushes the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix to the limit, but the few sequences of intense action as well as Thomas Newman's (WALL-E) score come across with a fine combination of blunt force and subtle detail. The track also handles quiet dialogue quite well.
In addition to Nolfi's low-key but informative commentary, the Blu-ray disc contains deleted scenes and a few featurettes:
Deleted and Extended Scenes (6:54)
The Labyrinth of Doors: Interactive Map of New York (33:57)
Leaping Through New York (7:36)
Destined to Be (4:51)
Becoming Elise (7:08)
The second disc of this two-disc set includes a DVD version of the movie, as well as a downloadable digital copy.
The Adjustment Bureau is so close to being an all-too-rare substantive science fiction story aimed squarely at grown-ups that its shortcomings are all the more frustrating. It's worth a rental by anyone looking for an evening of throwaway entertainment, but its failure to dig into Philip K. Dick's big ideas renders it a vacuous experience that exits the brain almost as soon as the end credits roll.
Guilty as charged.
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