The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Anthony Ruivivar, Michael Kelly, Terence Stamp

Directed by George Nolfi

Expectations: Super low. I thought the trailer was laughable, but others talked me into seeing it.

For most people I imagine this will satisfy and delight, but for me, a hardened sci-fi nerd with a distinct love for Philip K. Dick, it didn’t cut it. There’s very little in the film that feels even remotely connected to an idea Dick may have had, and that is much too great of a transgression to forgive in my book. When dealing with one of the greatest minds of classic sci-fi, you’d think he’d get more respect from Hollywood, but once again his story is co-opted into mainstream drivel for the masses. At least this time around it is successful in translating itself into a moneymaking mainstream film, which, oddly enough, might do some good for Dick’s name.

Matt Damon is a politician who by chance meets a lovely young lady in the men’s room while preparing his speech for the night. They hit it off well, so Damon is overjoyed when he happens to run into her again on a city bus. Unknown to him though, there are forces at work that dropped the ball, and he should have never stepped onto that bus. The trailer and the filmmakers would like you to believe that what follows this event is a taut sci-fi thriller, but don’t be fooled, as there is more downtime than exciting sequences. When it does get somewhat exciting, during the requisite Dick chase scenes, the villains are so lackadaisical in their pursuit that Damon and Blunt have time to conduct a heart-to-heart at the Statue of Liberty mid-chase.

The film doesn’t even follow its own logic either. In the first scene where agents travel through doors, they seem to move through whatever door they want and come out of any other door they’d like. The agent chases Damon through his office building by going through the nearest door and coming out the door in front of Damon. Then later in the film, we’re told the doors are all static and each door connects to another specific door. So that office must have been wired to be a maze of doors specifically built to fuck with people, because there would be no legitimate reason to hard-wire the doors like that otherwise. Hmm, it ain’t adding up. On top of this, as the supposed stakes are raised and the agents after Damon get progressively more annoyed and powerful, they also get equally more laid back and stupid. At any point during the “grand” final chase, couldn’t one of them raise a sidewalk to trip them up, like they did earlier in the film? Or perhaps crash a car to impede their path, again as they did earlier in the film?

The Adjustment Bureau‘s love story is also of a dubious quality. It can easily be seen as a metaphor for an abusive relationship, but yet the audience is expected to eat it up as a touching tale of a dude doing anything for his love. The life and feelings of Emily Blunt’s character are completely sidelined and inconsequential to the plot and to Damon. They have a great meeting, but Damon can’t connect with her due to unforeseen circumstances. When he meets her again three years later, he asks for forgiveness and he receives it. The same cycle happens a few more times throughout the film, with each escalating fault of Damon’s being forgiven away by Blunt because she is apparently desperate for his love and despite having another more dependable man, she wants the one that keeps hurting her. The movie is supposed to end happily, but all I could think of was how Damon had done nothing to prove himself. What happens when they finally sit down together, unheeded by the divergent plan, and realize they don’t have much to talk about? This love story is the heart of the movie, and for my money, it is the weakest part of the experience. It is also categorically opposed to Philip K. Dick’s style, and therefore personally offends me as a Phil Dick fan as well.

Despite all of my issues, The Adjustment Bureau isn’t truly an awful movie. It’s missing a lot of the tension it seems to think it has, not to mention it’s rather boring and illogical, but it is entirely watchable. It is a true representation of sci-fi for the masses; it doesn’t hold up at all under close scrutiny, but most people won’t care about that as long as there’s a love story with a happy ending. Oh and I’d also rather not have my sci-fi co-opted into a theological motif, which is somewhat ironic given Dick’s late period religious tinged sci-fi that, from the little of it I’ve read, is fantastic.

11 comments to The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

  • Dan

    My wife and I watched this a few weeks ago. We felt the same way you do. There’s something empty about it. However, it’s still entertaining. It’s certainly not memorable.

  • You should read more of his works…. Have you seen Screamers? An underrated (but bad) adaptation of a PKD short story. I disliked this one as well — the only positive aspect was the genuine “connection” between the two leads — which didn’t rescue the film…

    • I really should read more. I’ve read 5-6 novels and probably 30 or so shorts, but he’s got a lot more. He’s one of those guys that I enjoy so much I end up procrastinating reading through his stuff for fear that there will be no more new ones to read. The last novel of his that I read was The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch which I absolutely loved.

      In any case, after reading your comment I fished out the short story book with Adjustment Team in it and gave it a go. Imagine my surprise when the theological elements are even more ever present than in the film! I stand corrected. In any case, I enjoyed the story a lot more than the movie, even if it’s not one of Dick’s better tales. The story focuses more on the man’s confusion with the world surrounding him (one of my favorite aspects of Dick’s stories) and the God/Science connection is more traditionally Godly/Scientific so it felt richer. That being said, the movie does do a good job of taking a rather unbelievable and unmarketable short story and turning it into a cash cow. Even though I don’t like it, I gotta give it that.

      I enjoyed Screamers pretty well if I remember right. It’s been a number of years so I should probably re-watch it. That story is one of my favorites.

  • Well slated. This had a pretty good rep when it was out but I couldn’t see past the stupidity of it all: my main memories from the cinema is just laughing at all of the stupid reveals!

    • Yeah it’s definitely a case of “best movie in a sea of shitty early year releases” syndrome, where its quality gets blown way out of proportion simply because it’s the best movie out in a while. Time will not be kind to this one I think.

  • Yea I thought the same thing as you did. It seems competently made but for some reason, there is something missing that makes it bland and with too little tension. I think the angels and whatever they were were too nice and you knew nothing truly bad would ever happen to the main characters.

  • I can understand why you didn’t think this film was much chop, Will. It did tend to meander a little, and as Castor mentions above, it felt “bland with too little tension”. My own review was a little more positive than yours, I admit, probably because I’m less familiar with Phillip K Dick’s work than yourself, and my expectations were probably a lot lower thanks to the rather terrible trailers accompanying this film into cinemas. I agree with you regarding the co-opting of Dick’s work into more middling fare than he deserves, perhaps a result of the studio bean counters not quite understanding what makes him such a popular author in the first place.

    Still, I enjoyed The Adjustment Bureau for what it was, and have no problem with the faults you picked out of it either. Great review, man. I’m coming back for more!

    • Thanks, glad you liked the review! This is one of those movies that frustrates me personally but I can see why it’s popular (to a degree). I just wish it was more of a thriller and less of a romance.

      Would love to see a true Phil Dick fan step up to the plate and adapt one of his novels. Usually these middling adaptations are from short stories which are generally of a lesser quality than the novels and obviously much shorter, so the filmmakers have to augment and change things.

  • […] Will over at Silver Emulsion said this: “It’s missing a lot of the tension it seems to think it has, not to mention it’s rather bo… […]

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