Movie Review: The Adjustment Bureau

It’s got Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Terence Stamp, John Slattery and others. It’s based on a Philip K. Dick story. It features a capable cinematographer and able director (George Nolfi). So why is THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU not really very good?

Let me amend that — THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is perfectly alright. The rough outlines of the plot are fine: a politician is thunderstruck in love with a quirky ballet dancer, but the forces of Fate conspire to keep them apart, quite literally — fedora-sporting agents make ‘adjustments’ to people’s lives to make sure the overall plan stays on track. When Damon’s politician finds that Fate does not want him to be with the ballet dancer, he rebels and the two lovebirds are on the run against the conspiring adjustment agents. On paper it sounds like the ideal movie: a sci-fi action movie with a grand romance at its center with serious existential questions.

But a few shortcomings cripple the film and it never lives up to the promise of its component parts. First, the romance doesn’t quite gel. That’s probably Damon’s fault. Blunt is quirky and loveable onscreen (at least for the first half of the film — more on that later), but Damon just doesn’t seem capable of showing real affection on-screen and instead seems to accept the notion of being in love at face value rather than demonstrating it.

Second, the film is afraid of its themes. Issues of free will vs. fate, divine intervention and determinism… these are big issues and we never get at the heart of them. Instead the film melts into a generic chase movie and the big issues are given lightweight resolution (complete with an incredibly stupid moral of the story, delivered via voiceover narration). I have the feeling that Dick would be unhappy with how breezy this movie treats his themes.

Third, everything ended up in unfortunate cliches. Anthony Mackie, introduced as a conflicted agent of destiny, ultimately sinks into stereotypes that resurrect Will Smith’s role in THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE. Emily Blunt’s character — who is supposed to be this headstrong, quirky rebel character — completely melts into the standard damsel in distress, the person in the chase scenes who doesn’t quite know what is going on but follows her man devotedly and helplessly. It’s disappointing.

That said, THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is not an awful movie. Many will enjoy it. It does try to give romance and action and thought, and even if it never gives those in any spectacular measure it’s still a decent effort. It’s just not as intriguing, emotionally involving or exciting as it deserves.

18 thoughts on “Movie Review: The Adjustment Bureau

  1. Dang. I had high hopes for this one. Sounded sort of like Inception meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (both of which I loved). Not easy concepts to pull off, however.

    Has Damon ever really done a believable romance? I’m not sure he ever has. He might have been the wrong choice for this.

  2. MCQ, that’s precisely right, it did indeed sound like that matchup. But it isn’t. It’s fine. I enjoyed it. But it’s not great. If I’d paid for it I don’t know that I’d be satisfied.

    Good Will Hunting was pretty good in romance.

  3. Too bad. And too often typical of Dick adaptations. Very few have worked. Most Dick novels require a fair bit of adaptation. However the most successful adaptation, Blade Runner, bears little resemblance to the original other than capturing a very Dickish feel. I’ve long thought that if anyone could succesfully pull off a more straightforward adaptation it would be David Lynch.

    Interestingly that best adaptation was done by a then young Ridley Scott who had never even read Dick.

    The next best adaptation was Spielberg and also was a pretty significant rewrite of the underlying material. I thought it was fantastic until the final act where it turns into a silly Murder She Wrote.

    Total Recall was turned into intentional camp by Verhoeven. A few Dickish elements were there but by the midpoint the film had become a typical 80’s action flick.

    I never saw Scanner Darkly although I heard it was good. Paycheck was more like Total Recall but sadly starring Ben Affleck (who is a much better director than actor)

  4. Oh yeah, I always forget about the romance in GWH.

    “capturing a very Dickish feel”

    That’s what she said.

  5. We should have a poll asking what Dick adaptation is the worst. I’m gonna say NEXT.

  6. That’s what she said.

    MQC, maybe you could fill Steve Carell’s shoes on The Office. He has never used that line as adroitly.

  7. Doh! I was racking my mind trying to figure out what book or short story that was. Honestly I’m actually pretty mixed on Philip K. Dick. I think he’s pretty overrated although I really liked a lot of his short stories. But his writing never lived up to what his plots or ideas promised. Lots of stuff to mine for movies.

  8. Can I ask if the ending is terrible? Don’t tell me what the ending is, but it just seems like a movie similar to this would have a terrible ending, happy or otherwise.

  9. Next was really bad, it’s my least favorite Dick adaptation. Bummer about this one, I really liked the trailers and was hoping for the best. It sounds like I better wait for it to hit Netflix.

  10. Clark, I think you got to the heart of the matter. Most of the movie adaptations of Phillip K. Dick’s stories in part suffer from the same problem I had with many of his books and short stories. The ideas he came up with were great, but even he struggled with finding the right setting, plot, and characters to make a compelling story. Far more people love and adore his books than have actually read them.

    The most successful movie adaptations were the ones that started with the original germ of the idea, but re-wrote most (or all) of the characters and plots.

  11. Side note: lots of people like this movie. You might, too. NY Times, Ain’t It Cool, lots of people like it. I ‘liked’ it. But I should have LOVED it, and didn’t.

  12. The most believable Damon-in-love performance was he and Jude Law in the Talented Mr. Ripley. Good stuff.

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