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Review by Ryan Wilson

Few writers have left such a posthumous legacy as Phillip K. Dick. Fewer still see their work adapted so often to film, as we‘ve seen in movies like Minority Report, Total Recall, and the groundbreaking Blade Runner. Since his death thirty years ago, Dick’s novels and stories have become a touchstone from everything from The Matrix trilogy to last year’s Inception. That Dick’s unique mixture of metaphysics and science fiction has resonated in our current cinematic age says something about how entertaining his tales are, as well as how hungry the public is for deeper themes.

The Adjustment Bureau is the latest film to spring from the Dick cannon, and in classic Dick fashion the film marries suspense with politics and theological issues. Based on a story entitled “The Adjustment Team,” the movie centers on a young idealistic politician named David, played by Matt Damon. One part Barack Obama another part David Beckham, David is destined for big things if he can only keep his wild side in check. Yet it’s his wild side that most attracts the voters, especially younger voters, to him. If he can only apply his off-the-cuff style in just the right manner, he’ll be unstoppable. Enter Emily Blunt as Elise, a women he meets by chance one election night. She unlocks the best version of David, only to disappear as quickly as she appears. This is due to The Adjustment Bureau, a group of clandestine men who control when and where people will appear as well as what they think. They’ve arranged for David and Elise to meet, but then they’ve also arranged for David and Elise to never meet again. David, however, is not so quick to forget about this woman he’s so smitten with, and he’s willing to challenge everything to see her again.

What exactly is The Adjustment Bureau? Are they the fates or angels? Even the movie doesn’t want to classify them in such easy terms. Really they’re just a bunch of bureaucrats walking around in fedoras who have the power to alter time and space in order that things go “according to plan.” It’s always amusing to see films or stories whittle down the wielders of the universe into such everyday humdrum accountants, but that feels like Phillip K. Dick’s satire, or at least a statement on the era in which he was writing; forget the vastness of the universe, the real authority is your dad who will be off the train and home to deal with you by five.

The most powerful bureau members even go by stately, opaque names like Richardson and Thompson, names that give them weight but keep their personality at bay. Terrence Stamp plays Thompson, the mightiest of the universe’s disciplinarians. When he lectures Damon as to why he can’t be with Elise, it’s like a stuffy vice principal admonishing a kid for making out too much with his girlfriend the school hallway. More interesting is the middle-management bureaucrat played by John Slattery. Much as he’s known for in TV’s Mad Men, Slattery approaches his job as one large inconvenience, as if he’d rather be doing something else, as if as a higher power he’s just so bored keeping track of mere mortals. Slattery chasing Damon, or rather Damon trying to elude Slattery’s influence, makes for the most entertaining moments of the film, almost like a teenager trying to sneak out of a very smart parent’s house. Damon does get a sympathetic ear from one younger bureau member played by Anthony Mackie. If Slattery is bored with his assignment then Mackie is ready to revolt against his boss, and if the Adjustment Bureau is indeed comprised of “angels,” then we’re getting closer to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Alas, writer-director George Nolfi doesn’t want to get his hands that theologically dirty. Rather than delving into the bureau’s point of view, Nolfi keeps the focus of David and Elise. This would be a mistake is Damon and Blunt weren’t so good together. They make even the most mundane conversation feel new and endearing, the way you’re supposed to fee when you meet a kindred spirit. In a way it’s a shame that their chemistry is wasted on such a devise heavy film. Their relationship, in many ways, deserves to stand as a film of its own.

Ultimately the story turns into an elaborate chase scene as David and Elise try to elude the bureau. This isn’t fantastically done, but it’s not dull to watch, and in fact it’s refreshing that the climax doesn’t revolve around the traditional action-film gun-play. The Adjustment Bureau may be light on the philosophy, but at least it doesn’t entirely abandon its high-mindedness in favor of spectacle.

Speaking of larger issues, this Thursday March 17 Delta College will host director Robert Kenner, the award winning director of the Oscar-nominated documentary Food Inc, which takes an inside view of the food industry. Kenner will discuss the making of the film and what he learned along the way beginning at 4 pm in the Delta College Lecture Theatre. Food Inc. will be screened after Kenner’s discussion at 6 pm.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011