Adjustment Bureau

If you put a gun to my head and told me to spell the word bureau for you, I would be extremely dead in a very short amount of time. It is one of those words that I always manage to misspell so badly that the spell checker goes:

“Um… Did you mean Brontosaurus? Dude, like I don’t even… Baccalaureate? Burlap? Banjo? I don’t know!”

So yeah, maybe after writing this review I will finally remember how to spell this word.

Back in 1954 Philip K. Dick published a short story titled Adjustment Team. It wasn’t a big deal – a short, few page pulp fiction story. As Dick short stories go, this one was one of the more obscure ones. I’m not even sure how Hollywood found out about it, but they did – and they made a movie out of it. Which is the main reason why I’m reviewing it – because it is a Dick adaptation.

Dick adaptations usually make for pretty decent movies – the man has a very good track record when it comes to this. Which is why I imagine the movie was green lit in the first place. Original ideas are not very popular in Hollywood these days – but if you can attach a successful franchise, or name of a successfully adapted writer to your movie you are golden. But “Adjustment Team”? Really? Out of all Dick writing they picked that?

Adjustment Bureau poster

Here is the thing about “Adjustment Team”: it is barely few pages long. It was intended for magazine publication, and as such it is brief, to the point and concise. It introduces a main character, throws in the interesting SF concept and wraps things up fairly quickly. Not what I would call a feature film material.

How do you make a full length movie out of a short story? The answer is you don’t. Apparently, you pad the shit out of it with romance. To put it plainly, George Nolfi (the mastermind behind Adjustment Bureau) used Dick’s story as a vehicle for his own original script featuring two star crossed lovers, and Fedora wearing mystery men.

Mat Damnon plays a young, prominent politician. One day he is late to his day job because he meets the girl of his dreams on the bus. He arrives at the office at just the wrong time and catches a glimpse of something he was never supposed to witness. All of his coworkers seem to be asleep, or captured in some weird trance, and the office is overrun by strange, fedora wearing men. Strange men, talking about strange things and are making strange “adjustments”. They are changing furniture, rearranging desks, swapping people in and out Dark City style. They are also strapping weird, SF looking equipment with blinkenlights to the heads of the unconscious workers… The hero is quickly discovered and apprehended by this crack team of spooks, and given an ultimatum:

“This has never happened, you haven’t seen anything, and you are not going to tell anyone or else… Oh, and you are never to talk to that awesome girl you just met, because it was not meant to be.”

Guess what happens next? Think about it. Does the hero listen? Or does he go out of his way to defy this mysterious force or get the girl. The setup is basically a horse race between love and destiny? Who will end up on top: two star crossed lovers, or a some shadowy organization? Which horse is Hollywood putting its money on?

Well, it’s love. If you chose destiny, then sorry but I can’t award you any points. That would make for a downer ending and only student films, indie productions and artsy foreign films are allowed to have downer endings. It is in the Hollywood Film Maker handbook.

How is one guy to overthrow a huge, shadowy organization that knows everything, and controls just about every aspect of reality? Hollywood only knows two ways. One is to arm the protagonist with a gun that never runs out of bullets (unless the plot requires it) and have him kick ass and take names. But since they already made Damon a politician rather than ex-Navy Seal, this obviously wouldn’t work. So they used the only other alternative: a “Magical Negro”. No I’m not kidding. I wish I was though.

There is only one African American character in this movie, and in a time honored tradition he turns out to be the one good guy in the Bureau. He secretly gives the hero guidance, explains Bureau weaknesses and limitations to him, and gives him his magical fedora allowing him to use Bureau network of subspace portals (basically the door portals from one of the Matrix sequels). Armed with new knowledge, and powers the protagonist sets out to take back the woman he loves, and prevent her from marrying the wrong guy.

Obviously, none of this stuff was in the original story. Even the Bureau itself is different – they dress differently, and they use different methods (Dick’s adjustment teams would de-energize whole regions of real space stopping all activity on molecular level). Dick never explains who are the mysterious members of the Adjustment Bureau, where they come from, and where did they get the their advanced technology. The movie opts for a quasi-religious angle: Adjustment Bureau members are more or less angels. They live for a very long time, they work for an unseen, mysterious and all knowing “Chairman”, and their organization has been around since the dawn of time. So their work is pretty much the basis for most world religions. I’m not grasping at straws here, mind you: there is a scene in there when one of the characters flat out says that in the past people used to refer to bureau members as angels.

The first half of the movie is ok, but around the middle of the second act things start to go down hill. One of the problems is that the bureau and it’s secrets revealed too early. The hero finds out about them and their tactics almost at the very beginning of the movie, and after that they no longer seem mysterious or strange. The movie fails to capitalize on the paranoid conspiracy story from Dicks’ novel. Paranoia, mystery and conspiracies are great suspense building tools. But Nolfi has his own tale to tell. He gets the SF elements out of the way quickly and banks on the love story to carry the plot – that’s his baby, and his original work after all. Unfortunately, the romance doesn’t go anywhere interesting. It would be fine if he at least made an effort to make some interesting point, to say something meaningful abut love, relationships, soul mates and destiny. But he doesn’t.

The relationship between the two protagonists does not seem to have much depth. They feel strongly for each other, but for rather shallow reasons. For all the talk of love, and destiny we really don’t see much evidence of a deeper connection between them. They lust, they pine, brood, they giggle, they tease, they have awesome sex… But are they really in love? Nolfi tries to make them into Romeo and Juliet style couple, but he forgets what made their story so memorable: a fucked up, tear jerking downer ending. If ‘Bureau had a downer ending then perhaps it could at least claim to be a tear-jerker. And that’s a maybe.

In the last scene of the movie (SPOILER WARNING, I guess) God Chairman of the Bureau is so moved by the love and devotion of the two protagonists that he overturns his decree. He adjusts the grand plan, graciously allowing them to stay together. If you ever needed a textbook example of Deus Ex Machina, this is it. Greek style too – we have a literal “god” stepping in, and fixing things for the protagonists. Give me a break.

In short, I don’t recommend this movie. It was contrived, predictable, shallow and has a idiotic ending. If I got anything out of it it was this:

Back in late 90’s angels used to wear black trench coats with shades and were willing to sacrifice immortality in the name of love. In 2011 angels wear retro style suits, ties and fedoras and try to prevent lovers from getting together. What does that say about as as a society?

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3 Responses to Adjustment Bureau

  1. silent observer UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    My take away from that movie was that it was an attempt to demonize God and angels. ‘Mean ole God won’t let two lovers be together.’ So, he must be disobeyed, rebelled against, and double-crossed by one his own. Just another Hollywood attempt to squash faith in a righteous higher power.

    I had high hopes for it after seeing the previews. I was hoping it was going to be about (yet another) evil government bureaucracy. I was surprised and disappointed it went with demonizing God.

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  2. Michael UNITED STATES Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    @ silent observer:
    Deism is a childlike delusion and as “the silent observer” you should just stay silent next time.

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  3. Mr.Pete GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Yeah, the thing started out fine and I really thought “interesting thing with these agents adjusting reality”.
    I was really curious to see who’s behind an organization that’s able to alter peoples minds but so… meh!
    It had something of a comedy though with the main antagonists trying to keep the two apart and always hitting walls.

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