Tuesday 16 January 2018

Movies: The Adjustment Bureau ***


Paul Whitington

Such is the love affair between Hollywood and science-fiction writer Philip K Dick that his briefest utterance in print is deemed worthy of a major motion picture. Dick has been dead for almost 30 years, but, since then, his novels and stories have inspired at least a dozen films, including the likes of Blade Runner and Total Recall.

The Adjustment Bureau has been adapted from a Dick story called Adjustment Team by George Nolfi, who also directs the film. He does so with aplomb, but the movie's roots in a brief story rather than a novel become apparent long before its end.

Matt Damon is David Norris (I know, I know), an up-and-coming US congressman from New York who's in the middle of a Senate election campaign when a chance encounter changes his life.

Norris's campaign has hit a snag after photos of him engaged in a frat-boy college prank are leaked to the press. He has just retired to the men's room of a fancy hotel to fine-tune his dignified defeat speech when a glamorous woman emerges from one of the cubicles.

This is Elise Sallas (Emily Blunt), a beautiful English dancer who has a certain contempt for authority but takes an instant shine to Congressman Norris.

The feeling is mutual and, when Elise disappears, David is filled with longing for her. By chance he meets her again a few months later on a downtown Manhattan bus, and this time he takes her number and promises he'll see her again.

But what neither of them know is that dark forces are at work to keep them apart. When David reaches his office that day he finds his colleagues frozen in trances and is confronted by a group of strange men in long coats and homburg hats. They overpower him, a mysterious door is opened and David finds himself in a massive abandoned warehouse.

A character called Richardson (John Slattery) tells him that he is part of 'The Adjustment Bureau', a group of extraterrestrial corporate types who work tirelessly for a shadowy character called The Chairman, who may or may not be God.

The Chairman has a carefully laid plan for the world, and the Bureau are charged with seeing that individual humans do not divert from this schema. David has big things in his future, and if he starts a relationship with Elise all of this will be jeopardised.

David returns to his normal life confused as to what to do. But try as he might he cannot get Elise out of his mind, and his growing love for her will drive him to defy the Adjustment Bureau.

For its first 40 minutes or so, George Nolfi's film proceeds with commendable energy, invention and even wit. The technicalities of the Bureau's operation are diverting: its members criss-cross Manhattan in seconds through a system of portals that deposit them from Battery Park to Central Park in seconds, and they share a kind of gallows humour about their demanding and complex work.

But the paranoid, ethereal world that Philip K Dick invented was conjured up in broad brush strokes and intended to last a few brief pages. It is nowhere near complete or coherent enough to sustain a two-hour movie, and David and Elise's dilemma becomes vaguely risible before it ends.

Which is a pity, because Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are terrific together, and would make a compelling rom-com double act were they ever to consider such a venture. There's genuine chemistry between them, and The Adjustment Bureau's finest moments come courtesy of their romantic interactions. Both make the most of the script's lighter moments as well, and make a rather slender sci-fi yarn more than merely watchable.

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