"I Guess The Lord Must Be in New York City"
"Dicking Around with People's Lives..."
The stories of Philip K. Dick have provided all sorts of story-fodder for the movies for both good or ill: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, Next, and Impostor.
They feature the sort of high-concept story-spine that easily translates into genre-bending sci-fi/fantasy films that are the easiest thing to translate to the screen short of a superhero property. Just put a slight spin on a story concept—a police force that stops crimes before they happen, spies and detectives who are mentally undercover, a guy who can see into the future, but just eight minutes out—all odd concepts that illuminate the character dilemma in a way that a straight story might not highlight. You don't have to be a genius to "get" what the movie says. And the inevitable SFX look great on trailers.
So, here's The Adjustment Bureau, a paranoid conspiracist's validation of all things manipulated. Young senatorial candidate David Norris (Matt Damon) is about to lose an election big, due to some ill-considered party-decisions earlier in his life. In the men's room of the Waldorf, he practices his contrite, yet defiant acceptance speech, only to find that he is being overheard by Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), who is evading hotel security after crashing a wedding upstairs. It's a "meet-cute" as the two banter about Norris' loser-status and Elise becomes intrigued enough to plant a lip-lock on him. His campaign manager (the always welcome Michael Kelly) walks in just in time to catch this and bust it up to get Norris to the ballroom to admit defeat. I'd've fired him on the spot.
It's some time later and Norris is working for an investment capital firm with his manager. He's running a little late, so he doesn't notice a team of angular men in business suits and fedoras are shadowing him. One in particular—Harry (Anthony Mackie)—has an assignment: Norris must spill coffee on his shirt by 9:05 am, not any later. It's his job, says Agent Richardson (John Slattery), so don't screw it up.
But, if he didn't, there wouldn't be a movie.
There's no use crying over unspilled coffee, but as a result, the rest of the movie is the Team attempting to solve the mess the non-mess creates: Norris is able to catch his bus on-time, where he once again encounters Elise, and gets to work just in time to see the Pre-Destinators (my term) sweeping the office, the personnel frozen, and key players receiving a "mind-wipe." Norris catches on quickly, and tries to evade the invaders, only to find them around every office corner, calmly telling him to that, really, he should take it easy and cooperate and "this" will all go a lot easier.
He wakes up in an empty warehouse, with his pursuers deigning to tell him the truth about things: "You've just seen behind the curtain you never knew existed." They're a team of agents who manipulate events among humankind—a kind of Uber-illuminati ('"sometimes it's chance, sometimes it's us")—at the behest of "The Chairman." They lay down the law: He can't have a relationship with Elise, which David objects to ("Your entire world just changed and you're thinking about a woman?") as it's not in "the plan," and if he tells anybody about what he's seen, they'll make everyone think he's crazy, and "reset" him, leaving him basically lobotomized.*
Norris is too much a free-thinker to obey the "button-down men of Fate" and the rest of the movie entails him "changing the curtains," as it were. It's very clever and director George Nolfi, (who wrote the screenplay for the similarly time-trippy Timeline, had fun adapting his screenplay "Honor Among Thieves" into what would become Ocean's Twelve, and was one of the team who wrote—and re-wrote—The Bourne Ultimatum) ingeniously keeps things moving at a good clip, while also staying one jump ahead of the story-complications inherent in the plot...while also doing enough cinematic sleight-of-hand to keep the Doubting Thomases in the audience from falling into plot-holes. He gets good performances out of everyone—allowing enough ad-libbing in the scenario to make it seem real and fresh, sort of a real-life version of the film's conceit of re-writing History in pencil before the Cosmic Ink dries. It's fast, fun, and fresh and avoids pretentiousness or taking itself too damn seriously. It is only after a little Time has passed that it feels a bit slight, but who could have anticipated that?
One thing is for sure: I gotta get me one of them hats!
The Adjustment Bureau is a Matinee.
* At that point I flashed on former CBS news-anchor Dan Rather walking down a New York Street and being attacked by men and all they said was "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" Everybody acted like Rather had had "a spell," but I wonder if his attackers were wearing hats.