MOVIE REVIEW: “The Adjustment Bureau” (2011)

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This is a *really* good movie!

Nobody is more surprised by that than I am. I’ve seen every Philip K. Dick adaptation released theatrically (Excepting “Imposter” and one filmed in French), and they mostly suck. “Blade Runner” is the highest card in a very low hand, and if we’re honest, it’s got many problems that haven’t been entirely excised by two re-edits. “Minority Report” hasn’t aged well, and it’s built on the rape and murder of a child, which, I think, would have appalled the author of the source material. “A Scanner Darkly” is about as close an adaptation as you can get, but it is self-consciously showy, and in omitting basically the second half of the novel, it also omit’s the *point.* Everything else unabashedly sucks. Over the last thirty years my “Oh, cool, a PKD movie!” reflex has been re-shaped into “Oh no, another PKD bastardization.”

This movie wasn’t a priority for me. I avoided it until Ginrummy forced me to watch it. I was wrong to hold off, it is a really, really good film.

Based on Phil’s 1953 short story, “Adjustment Team,” it’s basically the tale of a man who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and sees something he isn’t supposed to see. In both cases - story and movie - he’s supposed to be at work at a certain time, but owing to complications among the unseen powers that be, this goes awry, and he sees mysterious men re-programming someone at work. He freaks, he runs, he’s captured, and the mysterious men explain who and what they are, and why they’re doing this. They warn him to keep it secret, let him go, and from thence the stories diverge somewhat. The story going to a speedy deus ex machina ending. The movie has a much more elaborate deus ex machina and hard-won.

If I’m being a bit nebulous, well, I don’t want to give much away. Suffice to say this is a smart, well acted, engaging, well-directed psychological not-quite-thriller. It doesn’t feel like a short story needlessly padded out with action scenes (As, say, “Total Recall”), nor does it feel like a Twilight Zone episode writ large (As, say, with “Imposter”), nor does it feel like something that is an homage to Phil’s work while being almost completely unrelated to it (As, say, with “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report” and “Screamers”). It actually *feels* like Phil’s story.

There are a lot of liberties taken with the story, but I’m not one of those people who gets upset about that. A book is a book and a movie is a movie, with different rules and formats. Insistence on a film being exactly like the source material betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of how visual storytelling works. Suffice to say no flick based on literature can ever be closer than an adaptation. If it’s well adapted, it doesn’t matter how far it strayed from the source so long as it kept the soul of it. Likewise, if it’s badly adapted, it doesn’t matter how closely it stuck to the letter: it’s still a bad movie.

This flick is *darn* good. The liberties are massive, but they’re respectful, and they’re entirely in the spirit of what Phil was doing. There are many direct references to the story, despite having a largely different plot (Same premise, though). This isn’t the story he wrote, but it is clearly in love with the story he wrote. In fact, in changing the tone and taking the premise more seriously (Dick’s story is semi-comic) and developing the characters a bit more, and adding a solid romantic-through line, I’m going to say this is one of those so-rare-as-to-be-statistically-insignificant films that are *better* than the thing they’re based on.

Far and away my favorite PKD movie.

It’s not without flaws, of course. Given his looks and social status, it’s hard to believe Matt Damon’s character wouldn’t have any love life whatsoever for four straight years, not even a token supermodel girlfriend-of-convenience. The Thomas Newman soundtrack is bland, uninspired, and basically useless. The film doesn’t really develop any visual flare until the last act, though it’s well directed and the cinematography is competent. The obligatory (but not gratuitous) sex scene in the middle feels a bit out of place, simply because I’m fundamentally a romantic, and I think the story plays a bit more emotionally honest if their love remains chaste until *after* the conflict is over. Being willing to throw your life away for your girlfriend is one thing, being willing to throw your life away for someone you barely know, but are completely smitten with is, y’know, a completely different thing entirely. I think the movie blows it a bit there.

Finally, the ending *is* a bit of a cheat. There’s no getting around that. But this, too, is true to the spirit of the story. In the original, the powers that be are involved in the resolution for their own ends. In the story, it’s a throwaway gag. In the movie, it’s a hard-fought conclusion that is far more satisfying, but still not entirely satisfying. It probably could be done better, but I’m not sure how. I will say this, however: Up until the very end of the film, I wasn’t sure how it was going to come down. I suspected. I was wrong.

I love, however, how the film gives a paranoid glimpse into the world behind our world. I love that the “Bad Guys” have very good reasons for everything they do. I love that random chance plays a role even in immutable destiny. I love the notion that there are people looking out for us because they love their boss, not because they like us. I love the ruminations on humanity that are cynical, but not misanthropic, and which end up being guardedly optimistic. Most of all, I love stories where reality fundamentally falls apart for the protagonist, who scrambles to make sense of it. In the end, that’s what Mr. Dick was best at, and in the end, this is the *only* film based on his work to really capture that.

Strongly recommended.


You know, apart from the language and the one (very mild) sex scene, it’s possible that even Social Conservatives might like this movie.