is it free will or predestination that most hollywood studio movies we get fit neatly into their respective boxes? it’s more or less understandable that with more money involved, one is less likely to take risks; at the same time, the climate of o.c.d. analysis of each trailer and screen shot released masquerading as news, of every single major motion picture, it has become increasingly hard to surprise audience by the time the movie finally reaches theatres.
i asked because the adjustment bureau is inspired or based on the short story the adjustment team by philip k dick, who explores the free will vs. predestination theme frequently, but also because the adjustment bureau somehow manages to avoid being the expected big budget dickaptation scifi technobabble.
matt damon plays a (purely coincidentally) democratic senatorial candidate david norris, who was in the lead until a past prank comes back to haunt him. while rehearsing his concession speech, he meets elise (emily blunt) in the men’s bathroom, who’s hiding from security for crashing a wedding (i like damon’s response in hearing that: “people still do that?”). meanwhile, we see men with hats who seem to be following and watching over the characters. two of these watchers are played by anthony mackie (from the hurt locker and the overlooked night catches us) and john slattery from tv’s mad men. we eventually learn that the men with hats are adjusters who ensure things happen (and not happen) according to plan, written by their boss, the chairman. and according to their books, norris and elise are not supposed to be together.
having read the philip k dick short story the adjustment team a couple days before seeing the movie, the adjustment bureau does a splendid job in turning a less than 25 page short story into a full length feature. most of the time, the changes and additions feel unnecessary or boring (as in next, or our next entry). the film succeed in making these additions work. the original short story has nothing to do with politics or love interest but these scenes work mostly due to the chemistry between damon and blunt. the screenplay is credited to writer/director george nolfi (who also wrote the bourne ultimatum and ocean’s twelve, both starring damon) but the give and take between these two characters has a kind of good will hunting quality, which damon co-wrote with ben affleck, star of another (lesser) dickaptation: john woo’s paycheck.
one change that didn’t work out so well is damon’s character being a politician. in the original story, he’s a real estate agent. so there’s a parallel bureaucracy between the lead character and the adjusters, who are simply carrying out the plans without question. the movie turns this into good guys vs. bad guys. the ending also feels way too neat, instead of the humorous witty punchline of an ending in the story, the film ends more on the metaphysical, new agey tip.
perhaps i was fixating on the original short story but it wasn’t until long after the movie is over that i recognize the standard romcom structure. except here, the meet cute feels more believable and realistic. the adjusters, who should have been played by the whole mad men team, are the exes and misunderstandings that keep the leads apart. there’s even the wedding interruption in the third act leading to the forgone conclusion.
and that’s also the part where the film squanders its promise of the first half. the first hour or so manages to create its own universe despite being an adaptation and does it without betraying its source material. unfortunately, the second half (when terence stamp’s character appears) ignores everything else and settles with being a chase picture (yes i am a studio executive from the 50s). the plot eventually withers down to whether they will end up together.
despite numerous flaws, the adjustment bureau nevertheless defies expectations. going back to the question in the first paragraph, i admire the fact that a movie based on a philip k dick story, working with its budget and stars, decided to go in this direction, instead of wowing audience with eye-popping special effects or tech specs. i like that it doesn’t go with the usual technical excerise/mindfuck. the realistic settings, instead of beautifully polished and rendered cityscape is also in tune with most philip k dick stories. it is an unabashed love story that happens to utilize philip k dick elements, and with the innocent man thrust into an astonishing situation, the paranoia, the chases, there’s a bit of hitchcock in there too. i am also a sucker for big city chase pictures. this one takes place in new york and is actually shot in new york. considering the amount of dickaptation and dick-inspired movies we get, it’s no small feat that the adjustment bureau still feels somewhat original. it’s no classic dickaptation like blade runner, total recall or minority report (and it’s not supposed to be), but it’s leaps and bounds above most dickaptation and way more interesting that pedestrian modern day popcorn fare like the more simple-minded yet more popular limitless.
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