Adjustment Bureau, The (2011): Nolfi’s Version of Philip Dick’s Sci-Fi, Starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt

Entertaining for the most part, but ultimately more intriguing than really satisfying, George Nolfi’s Adjustment Bureau reaffirms the status of Matt Damon as the best “Everyman Star”  working in Hollywood today.

“Adjustment Bureau” is Nolfi’s intelligent screen version of the short story by the noted sci-fi writer Philip Dick, “Adjustment Team,” which was originally published in 1954 in Orbit Science Fiction.

Obviously, it’s  a very loose adaptation, and not just because the source material was written over half a century ago, but also because Nolfi the writer aims at blending the conventions of various genres, such as sci-fi, thriller, actioner, dramatic romance—and a metaphysical parable about the role of Fate and Free Will in our daily lives.

In intent, “Adjustment Bureau” is an overly ambitious studio picture, one which follows the paths of other star-driven, special-effects hybrids, such as “The Matrix” movies, and more recently Christopher Nolan’s Oscar nominated blockbuster, “Inception.”  However, in execution and results, the movie is flawed and underwhelming, perhaps because it tries to do too much within its frame.

Nolfi knows that it’s the film’s romantic and erotic angles that are the most marketable and commercial, and so he emphasizes the likable personalities of– and strong chemistry– between his stars, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt (who proves she’s adept at playing well both supporting and lead roles).   A mature and intelligent film made for adult audiences, “Adjustment Bureau” opens theatrically March 4.I wonder why the movie (which I saw in early February) was not released by Universal for Valentine’s Day.

Likely to divide critics, “Adjustment Bureau” should generate mid-level numbers, similar to the box-office performance of other Damon more serious films.  However, the movie might face the dangers of becoming a tweener: Not good enough for the more cerebral critics and audiences, and a tad too serious in its existential and spiritual concerns for the mass audience.

Over the past four decades, several of Philip K. Dick’s stories have been made into big-budget Hollywood movies by major directors, such Paul Verhoeven’s “Total Recall” with Schwarzenegger, Spielberg’s “Minority Report” starring Tom Cruise, and Ridley Scott’s cult noir “Blade Runner” featuring the young Harrison Ford.

Placed in broader perspective,  it’s noteworthy that, in narrative and thematic terms, “Adjustment Bureau” is quite original and very different from the previous Dick adaptations.

With all my admiration for Nolfi’s playful game of ideas, it must be stated right away that “Adjustment Bureau” raises more provocative intellectual questions than it can possibly tackle adequately, let alone resolve effectively within its frame and running time.  A second problem is that “Adjustment Bureau” gets weaker and more conventional as it goes along, particularly in the last reel, in which Damon’s character is frantic to reunite with the love of his life.

Nolfi has worked with Damon before, as writer of “Ocean’s 12,” and as co-writer of “The Bourne Ultimatum,” the popular franchise directed by Paul Greengrass, which put Damon on the map as a mega-star, and so he is familiar with the actor’s qualities.  The tailor-made part was written specifically with Damon in mind, and it’s a pleasure to report that he carries the movie beautifully on his soild sholders.

Damon plays charismatic politician David Norris, a man who glimpses the future planned for him only to realize that he wants something else.  On the brink of winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, David meets and falls in love with the beautiful and mysterious ballet dancer Elise Sellas (played by Emily Blunt), a woman unlike any he’s ever known.

Their first, fateful encounter occurs in the restroom, and a bizarre exchange of words and awkward introduction (considering the place) raises our expectations about the future of the couple, the lost, bewildered, defeated politician, and the mysterious woman (sort of a femme fatale), who runs away, claiming she is being chased.

In the narrative that ensues, a group of strangers conspire to keep the two apart.  Gradually, David learns he is up against Fate itself—the men of the Adjustment Bureau—who will do everything and anything in their power to prevent the couple from sharing their lives together.

But why? Who are these people? Do they represent a unified front, conspiring as a menacing organization against the individualistic David?

The story’s most interesting and complex man is Harry (well played by Anthony Mackie of “Hurt Locker” fame), the Bureau representative assigned to David’s case. Following david closely and getting to know him, Harry, has a change of heart and attitude and becomes sort of his guardian angel in the course of the film.

John Slattery, still best known for the TV series “Mad Men,” could have stepped right into his screen role here from the TV series, as Richardson, Harry’s agitated and highly driven supervisor.

Then there’s the always cool Terence Stamp, who is cast as Thompson, the head Bureau agent who is called in to resolve the Norris problem once and for all.

On David’s side, we have Michael Kelly, as Charlie Traynor, who in the first reel functions as David’s campaign manager and then continues to serve as his best friend and thus make periodic appearances.

However, essentially, the text is very much a love story that revolves around the on-again off- again romance of David and Elise.  It’s sort of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy wins girl—except that these encounters occur more than once and they span over the course of  several years.

The tale’s major dilemmas could be phrased as How important is it for us to be in control of our future, and how much are willing to do and to sacrifice for the person we believe is your soul mate.  In “Adjustment Bureau,” facing overwhelming odds, David must either let Elise go and accept his predetermined path, or risk everything he has to defy Fate and be with her.

To Nolfi’s credit as a scribe and helmer, despite the fact that the ending is predictable, the narrative is engaging throughout, and the interest is sustained not by the outcome (which we all know from the couple’s first meeting), but from the journey upon which David embarks.  Like all good road movies, “Adjustment Bureau” involves an odyssey that contains emotional, physical and metaphoric dimensions.

The filmmakers have shrewdly decided to situate the story in New York City, and so there is great use of familiar Manhattan sites, which add color and credibility to the proceedings.

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