Matt Damon as David Norris
Emily Blunt as Elise Sellas
Anthony Mackie as Harry Mitchell
John Slattery as Richardson
Terrance Stamp as Thompson
Michael Kelly as Charlie Traynor
Anthony Ruivivar as McCrady
Donnie Keshawarz as Donaldson
John Stewart as Himself
James Carville as Himself
Michael Bloomberg as Himself
Directed by George Nolfi
Philip K. Dick is a difficult writer for Hollywood. His set ups are imaginative and paranoid enough to naturally entice producers looking for a good hook for a thriller, something that will draw an audience in and make them wonder what on earth is going on. Of course, with that paranoia comes an incredibly pessimistic world view that naturally plays itself out in most of his stories. That sort of thing just isn’t going to fly in Hollywoodland, since the only thing producers lust after more than a good hook is a happy ending. So naturally, whenever a Dick story makes the jump to the big screen, it has to be… adjusted… a little bit.
David Norris (Matt Damon) can relate. He’s faced a lot of hardship in his life–the death of his entire family at a young age, growing up in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood–all of which has led him to the point of making a successful run for the Senate. In some ways it almost seems as if everything that has ever happened to him has been engineered to bring him to this point in his life. Because it has.
That does sound like a good jumping on place for a thriller, as with most Dick stories. But that’s not really what you get, as with most Dick stories.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing and in the case of “The Adjustment Bureau” it most assuredly is not. Screenwriter George Nolfi’s (“Ocean’s Twelve,” “The Bourne Ultimatum”) very loose adaptation of Dick’s short story is in many ways more of a romantic drama than a thriller and far more concerned with the relationships between the main characters than with any specific twists and turns, most of which are laid out early on.
David doesn’t have much choice about that focus since his relationship with dancer Elise (Emily Blunt) is pretty much the only thing the members of “The Adjustment Bureau” care about. David and Elise were never supposed to meet and now these unseen bureaucrats of the universe are following David around, desperately trying to put him back on course, but they’re struggling against something even stronger than the ability to re-write the rules of the universe.
Which is probably a whole lot more optimistic than anything Dick ever imagined, but within the context of Nolfi’s directorial debut it works. Rather than focus on the paranoia as a means to keep people on the edge of their seats, he focuses on the internal humanism of the people involved, and not just David and Elise. Rather than create a nameless, faceless group of strangers out to get you, Nolfi has re-imagined the Bureau itself as a group of beleaguered everymen who are just trying to do their jobs as best they can. People who have (in their eyes) genuinely good reasons for doing what they do, but who are not above being touched by the effect their actions have on their human subjects.
Ultimately, though, it is about David and Elise, and it is to Nolfi’s great luck that Damon and Blunt have terrific on-screen chemistry together. They have a great deal of help from Nolfi’s script which is full of charm and wry humor. Even the best of words can be left dead on the page if there’s no connection between the leads, especially in a story where a connection between human beings is what the whole deal is about, and not just the one between David and Elise. David’s handler Harry (Anthony Mackie) has been following him around his whole life, and in fact has been responsible for most of the major events that happened to him, so he can’t help but be drawn into his inner turmoil and want to help him when the men behind the curtain take David aside, explain the true nature of the world to him and then tell him in no uncertain terms he can never see Elise ever again.
For those expecting something more in the way of thriller with mind-bending chases through the back doors of reality, there is some of that but you have to wait until almost the end to get there. It’s well worth the wait to get there, not so much because of the conclusion as because of the trip as you begin to root for David and Elise to succeed despite all obstacles.
It’s not perfect, naturally; the ending is on the pat side which is a common side effect of dealing with true love, capital T, capital L. It doesn’t have a central antagonist either as David’s reticence to comply keeps pushing his case further up the chain of command. The closest we get is Terrence Stamp as the Bureau’s chief enforcer, called out of retirement to handle one last case.
All in all, though, it works, and it works because of what it’s not. It’s not a thriller intent on chills and adrenaline, nor is it a purely sappy romance using science fiction as trite clothing. Somehow I doubt Dick himself would have been too fond of it as an adaptation, but adjust your expectations from what you may be expecting and you’ll find it hard not be carried along for the ride.