Monday, March 7, 2011


Hugo Award winning author Phillip K. Dick penned over 40 science fiction novels and more than 120 short stories. Dick forged a career out of writing about omnipotent corporations and dystopian governments that manipulated people like puppets. Even if sci-fi does not share shelf space with your mainstream literature, you should have heard about him from a number of film adaptations released since his death. For the record, Dick died in 1982, and Hollywood belatedly appropriated his creative output. Of course, “Blade Runner” (1982) ranks as the most celebrated of Dick adaptations. “Next” (2007) with Nicolas Cage, “A Scanner Darkly” (2006) with Keanu Reeves, “Paycheck” (2005) with Ben Affleck, “Minority Report”(2002) with Tom Cruise, “Impostor” (2001) with Gary Sinise, “Screamers” (1995) with Peter Weller, and “Total Recall” (1990) with Arnold Schwarzenegger followed. The thing that most of these films have in common is that they do little justice to his genius. Writer, producer, and director George Nolfi, whose writing credits include "The Bourne Ultimatum" and "Ocean's Twelve,” has tampered marginally with Dick’s 1954 short story "Adjustment Team” to augment the romantic angle. The short story had no romantic angle, but this alteration makes the movie with Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, and Terence Stamp into an entertaining opus. If you shun sci-fi sagas because of the gadgetry, terminology, and exotic creatures that dominate so many of these movies, “The Adjustment Bureau” may appeal to you. Damon doesn’t don a glittering space suit, and Blunt doesn’t sport a futuristic coiffure. Alien life forms neither invade Earth nor enslave humanity. What little gadgetry that is deployed is not emphasized because it plays such a peripheral part.

Aside from the earlier Dick adaptation “Paycheck,” “The Adjustment Bureau” (***1/2 out of ****) qualifies as the least sci-fi looking epic you’ll see. Nevertheless, it concerns a theme that obsessed Dick: alternate realities sometimes referred to as ‘simulacra.’ Damon plays young, single, unruly Brooklyn-born politician George Norris christened 'the GQ Congressman' for his sartorial elegance. Norris falls in love by a happy coincidence when he encounters a beautiful dancer in the men's room at the elite motel where he maintains his election campaign headquarters. Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt of "Gnomeo & Juliet") is hiding from motel security because she tried to crash a wedding. Norris struggles to organize his thoughts for a speech conceding his election to his opponent. Initially, he asks if anybody is in the restroom. Mind you, this is the kind of rest room where the toilet stall doors resemble front doors. When he gets no response, Norris mulls over the wording of his speech. Elise surprises him at the last moment and steps out, and they strike up a conversation that leads to a kiss. No sooner have they concluded their lip-lock than David's long-suffering campaign manager Charlie Traynor (Michael Kelly of "Law Abiding Citizen") enters and catches a glimpse of Elise as she strolls out. Afterward, David concedes defeat with a speech about the absurd lengths that his campaign went to so that he would draw diverse voters. He talks about his choice of shoes. The shoes have to look nice enough to attract the upper elite without alienating the middle class voters. Although he lost the election, David has proved so charismatic that he won't be overlooked during the next election.

Later, David and Elise meet again on a New York City Transit bus. As it turns out, an anonymous group of guys are monitoring everything that happens to our protagonists. They dress in elegant but unobtrusive grey suits, ties, and hats. They tote around books and haunt rooftops so they can survey the city and make plans. Actually, they don’t make plans. More appropriately, they follow plans. When they open their books to check the progress of these plans, we see what resembles a live ‘etch-a-sketch’ on paper with lines and circles. They report to a superior who they call ‘the Chairman of the Board.’ No, the Chairman of the Board is not Frank Sinatra with a harp, a halo, and a hat. In fact, we never see ‘the Chairman of the Board.’ Clearly, this ‘Chairman of the Board’ might be a supreme deity. Wisely Nolfi leaves this up to the imagination of moviegoers so that religion doesn’t become an issue. The problem is that the Chairman of the Board, who orchestrates the moves that mankind make, wants neither David nor Elise to hook up.

Indeed, these many mysterious men in hats do their best to keep our hero and heroine apart. Initially, they succeed after a guy-in-gray, Harry Mitchell (Will Smith lookalike Anthony Mackie of “Million Dollar Baby”), takes a nap on a city bench and misses his rendezvous with David. When he misses colliding with Norris, Harry accidentally allows our hero to run into Elise on the city bus. The men in grey scramble to make-up for this error by getting to David’s office ahead of him where they are erasing minds when he stumbles in on them. All of this stuff appears in the trailer. Richardson (John Slattery of “Iron Man 2”) divulges the entire set-up to David and warns him that they will zap his mind if he does not keep their secret. Specifically, they don’t want him to meet Elise because she is destined to become America’s greatest dancer. If they get together, David will destroy her career as well as sidetrack his own political ambitions. Predictably, David refuses to be manipulated, even if these enigmatic gentlemen threaten to erase his mind. Sounds a bit like “Men in Black" doesn't it? Nevertheless, he does everything within his power to thwart these people who would keep the woman of his dreams and he apart in this exciting romantic thriller. The closest movie to “The Adjustment Bureau” that seasoned sci-fi aficionados may recall is director Alex Proyas’s second film, the neo-noir “Dark City” (1998) where aliens recreated an Earth-like environment and conducted endless experiments to understand the essence of humanity. Unlike “Dark City,” “The Adjustment Bureau” prefers to be more cerebral than sci-fi. Nolfi makes our hero and heroine appropriately sympathetic, while the villains are immaculately shady without being hideous. The nearest thing to sci-fi here is the use of doors as short-cuts to get around New York City. Happily, Nolfi doesn’t clutter up the action with a surfeit of exposition that explains how going through different doors saves time. Altogether, "The Adjustment Bureau" qualifies as a lightweight but enjoyable "Twilight Zone" sci-fier that makes a great date movie.