Like Stephen King, legendary science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s novels have achieved middling success as cinematic adaptations. Some, like BLADE RUNNER, TOTAL RECALL, and MINORITY REPORT, have become critical and/or financial successes whereas others such as NEXT, PAYCHECK, and SCREAMERS have mercifully died quick deaths never to be heard from again. The author’s stories have always served as perfect material for film adaptation because they usually involve themes involving reality not being real and vast conspiracies. Philip K. Dick’s characters are usually people who realize that their world is one grand big illusion that’s controlled by outside and powerful forces (NOTE: I suppose one can also argue that the quality of the author’s stories was influenced by the fact that the author was delusional and believed that people were always out to get him). THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU follows these same themes and fortunately it avoids being a steaming pile of shit.

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is loosely based on a short story by Philip K. Dick called “Adjustment Team.” Matt Damon is David Norris, a young, charismatic politician running for U.S. Senate. The film opens with Norris in a strong lead over his opponent. However, after media reports reveal an embarrassing college incident, Norris’ electoral chances plummet to nothing. As he sits in a bathroom rehearsing his concession speech, he meets a woman, Elise (Emily Blunt). They immediately connect with each other as if they were destined to meet. The woman leaves, but she inspires Norris to disregard his written speech and instead make an honest speech that ends up becoming so popular that Norris is touted as the early favorite for the next Senate race. We soon discover, however, that beyond his initial encounter with Elise, David Norris is not meant to see her again, which he does by a chance encounter on a bus. Norris is met by a group of hat-wearing men in suits who explain the concept of The Adjustment Bureau. This organization has been around since the beginning of mankind and what it does is guide the life of every single human on this planet and it makes sure that everyone sticks to their life plan. Each human is assigned a caseworker (who you will never see) and the bureau is headed by the Chairman, who creates the overall life plan of every person. The bureau agents (supervised by Richardson, who is played by MAD MEN’s John Slattery) warn Norris that he cannot tell anyone about the existence of the Adjustment Bureau or else they will completely erase his brain. They also instruct him to stop any efforts of meeting Elise again. However, Norris has fallen in love with Elise and he disregards the bureau’s instructions and finds her again, which causes the bureau to resort to stronger tactics.

I would be curious to know how this film was pitched to studio executives because on paper the concept is tough to summarize without making it sound hokey or lame. As its translated to the screen, THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is a smart, well performed, good looking movie that brings up interesting philosophical issues. The “Chairperson” who oversees the Adjustment Bureau is essentially God and the caseworkers employed by the bureau are basically angels (there is even a scene during which Norris asks his caseworker, played by Anthony Mackie, if he is an angel). The film poses the fascinating question of whether our lives are driven by free will or whether they are predestined by a higher power. The film’s answer to that question lies somewhere in the middle. The story has a pessimistic view of human nature. Over the past number of centuries, anytime the bureau has allowed humans to exercise their free will, the world has succumbed to disasters and the brink of extinction (The Black Plague, World Wars I & II, and The Cuban Missile Crisis). However, when the bureau has taken over the affairs of humans, the world has survived and even flourished (the Renaissance, the Roman Empire, and the current state of things). Of course, not everything that occurs in the world can be controlled by the bureau. Chance is something that occurs no matter what and the bureau’s job is to account for it by making adjustments to people’s life plans.

The philosophical premise of the film is a perfect theme to explore, especially for a science fiction story. In the past couple of years, Hollywood has moved beyond merely creating blow-em-up humans versus aliens action films and has also produced thought-provoking science fiction that challenges its audience intellectually (MOON, INCEPTION, and DISTRICT 9). My biggest gripe with THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is that I wish the filmmakers pushed the envelope further. It would have been nice to have seen further exploration into the whole free will vs. predestination theme. Unfortunately, the film pulls the reins on that by neatly resolving the story with a typical Hollywood ending. But I suppose that’s what happens when you get a director with no studio pull like George Nolfi to make this film instead of someone like Chris Nolan, who was given carte blanche to make INCEPTION in any way he wanted.

The success of THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is completely dependent on the relationship between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. Without their chemistry, the film would fall apart. Fortunately it does not. Both actors are extremely likable and you become invested in their effort to stay together. Emily Blunt is an up and coming actress and although I have seen her in previous films, she hasn’t really put out a memorable performance nor does she have a unique or attractive face that would make me recognize her in anything. The two characters immediately click, which is pretty commendable considering how little time the screenwriter has to introduce both characters and make us believe that they have fallen in love with each other after just a 5 minute conversation in a bathroom. Both characters play off each other naturally so nothing feels forced. The only moment of incredulity I felt during the film is where Norris learns about the Adjustment Bureau and how it operates. He seems to accept everything in stride without ever questioning whether any of it is real or whether he’s insane. I think anyone presented with this type of information would have a “What the Fuck” moment before the information eventually settles in.

Rounding out the film’s noteworthy performances are those given by the Adjustment Bureau agents Harry (Anthony Mackie), Richardson (John Slattery), and Thompson (Terence Stamp). All three give wonderful performances as serious, bureaucratic G-men type agents assigned to take care of Norris. The backstory of how the agents operate and what each specifically does is interesting and well-developed. Some of you might find the entire concept of the bureau and the agents as too far-fetched. I can see where Harry Potter-esque moving books, magic hats, and arbitrary rules like water not allowing the agents to detect people can seem too preposterous for belief. However, the originality of the concept and the fleshed out backstory lend themselves to an engaging story that, if you’re willing to accept it, will no doubt entertain you.

A final aspect of THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU worth noting is the beautiful look of the film, credit for which can go to the illustrious and talented John Toll (LEGENDS OF THE FALL, WIND, BRAVEHEART, THE THIN RED LINE, ALMOST FAMOUS, and THE LAST SAMURAI). Toll gives New York City a nice tonal blend of science fiction (with a lot of whites, grays, and blues) and a variety of warm colors to reflect the timeless Adjustment Bureau.

For those of you expecting a straight up science fiction film, THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU might come off as a surprise because much of the film is a romantic story that is set within a science fiction world. The trailers present the film as a science fiction chase movie with a romance backbone. However, the reverse of that is what you will actually get. I for one did not mind this at all and George Nolfi pulls off a difficult task by combining two very different genres together. When all is said and done, THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is a smart, well-crafted tale that presents an entertaining take on the philosophical concepts of predestination.