When Ridley Scott showed him the rough cut of Blade Runner just months before he died, Philip K. Dick is said to have remarked: "it is as though you looked inside my head." But not all adaptations of Dick's work have been quite so ecstatically received. For all the ones that have worked (Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly), there have been at least as many that ditched the more thoughtful aspects of Dick's work in favour of chasing and explosions. Adding to Paycheck and Next, we now have The Adjustment Bureau, which could be the biggest let-down of the year.
It's not as though The Adjustment Bureau doesn't have talent behind it. Emily Blunt has demonstrated her dramatic chops in My Summer of Love and The Young Victoria, while Matt Damon is fast becoming one of the most reliable screen actors of our time. George Nolfi, who wrote and directed the film, worked as a co-writer on The Bourne Ultimatum, which remains Paul Greengrass' best work. And it is shot by John Toll, who won back-to-back Oscars for his work on Legends of the Fall and Braveheart.
With these credentials it would be tempting to brand The Adjustment Bureau as 'Bourne-lite' - or maybe 'Inception-lite' due to its science fiction trappings. But to do this would be a great disservice to both films, since The Adjustment Bureau has neither the intellectual rigour nor the heart-stopping, emotional action of these films. In fact, it is everything that those films weren't: flimsily constructed, loosely written, glossy-looking for its own sake and with underdeveloped ideas.
What made the later Bourne films so fantastic was the ability of Paul Greengrass to marry the aggressive, hand-held action sequences to believable character drama. The Bourne Ultimatum balanced this perfectly, with none of Jason Bourne's personal quandaries getting lost in or watered down by the spectacular action. Looking at Nolfi's film from a writing point of view, you'd swear that he had written the chase scenes and let Greengrass do the rest. He does not have the skill to marry action and ideas together, creating a film which is at best silly and at worst completely shallow.
The Adjustment Bureau is essentially a perfectly decent, if unremarkable, romantic comedy surrounded by increasingly preposterous elements of science fiction. The central relationship between David and Elise does have a genuine spark about it: the romantic dialogue in Nolfi's screenplay is too witty to have been written by a committee, and both characters feel like rounded human beings with believable jobs and lifestyles. We enjoy the company of Damon and Blunt because their emotional responses seem believable, increasingly a rarity in Hollywood rom-coms.
Normally, this kind of frothy concoction would do absolutely fine. But the science fiction elements, which provide the backdrop and keep breaking into the plot, cause the more contrived moments in the relationship to become magnified. Having David give up on Elise, only to have him realise he loves her and run across a city to find her, would work perfectly well on its own. But when you have David running across the city through secret doors, which he can only pass through while wearing a trilby, it very quickly becomes ludicrous, like a bad mash-up of The Graduate and Tron.
The Adjustment Bureau does attempt to raise a number of interesting questions about fate, chance and free will, subjects which are staples not only of science fiction but of Dick's work in particular. At the centre of the film is a discussion about whether human beings are free to choose how they live their lives, or whether we are simply actors reading lines off a script which has already been written (and re-written). The film strikes an interesting balance between the two, saying that while humanity's behaviour is constantly 'adjusted', it is not possible for the Bureau to be everywhere at once or stop every bad thing from happening. They even go so far as to admit that certain things are entirely down to chance, although it isn't specified where exactly the lines are drawn.
The film does a pretty good job of demonstrating the cost of free will - or, from the Bureau's point of view, the advantages of intervention. Terence Stamp's character delivers a speech similar to Al Pacino's in The Devil's Advocate, about how Mankind has taken itself to the brink whenever 'the Chairman' has taken a hands-off approach (for instance, the Dark Ages and the Cold War). The film retunes Dick's paranoia surrounding big corporations (and Hollywood) to a more abstract moral dilemma, in which the Chairman is God and his hatted assistants are interceding angels, keeping Humanity on the straight and narrow at the cost of there being no genuine free will.
The Adjustment Bureau attempts to retune this concept further to look at the course of true love. The central relationship, between a congressman and a ballerina, follows the trajectory of most American rom-coms: all sorts of obstacles are created to push them apart, but we always know that they will somehow end up together. The Adjustment Bureau doesn't deviate from this mould, but what it does do is offer a twist on why such obstacles occur. Rather than being the result of personal attitudes or quirkiness, the obstacles faced by Damon and Blunt are created by the powers-that-be, whether God or - to go all Pirandello for a second - the writers themselves.
Unfortunately, there are two gigantic problems with the manner in which The Adjustment Bureau tackles these ideas. The first is that it is very literal-minded, and fails to bring out the moral dilemmas without resorting to blatant plot exposition. Terrence Stamp's character is effectively Basil Exposition in a sharp suit, as though Nolfi thought Stamp was too old to be running around Chicago, telling him to stay in the warehouse and talk to his heart's content.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that exposition is a pill which must be sugar-coated if the audience is to remain in suspense. If North by Northwest is the epitome of sugar-coating, then The Adjustment Bureau is like a series of big and bitter pills. Whereas Inception introduced the mechanics of the dream-state incrementally, this handles its mechanics like someone repeatedly dropping a sledgehammer. It never has the confidence or foresight to outline exactly how much of what we see is adjusted, and the conversations about the plans are shoved down the audience's throats.
The second big problem with the films is that it dodges all the big moral questions that follow from its intriguing set-up. Not only does it gloss over where the battle lines are drawn, but its payoff feels far too easy. The lengthy chase sequences in the final act are an excuse to canter through the character development when it really matters, and the rooftop scene finds the script skimming over the philosophical implications of the plan 'being changed'. In its naked pursuit of a happy, feel-good ending, The Adjustment Bureau produces the exact opposite emotional response.
The visuals of The Adjustment Bureau are also guilty of being shallow. John Toll may be a great cinematographer, but under Nolfi's instructions everything is far too glossy: the overabundance of shiny blues and metallic greys make everything look like a shaving advert, or one of George Clooney's coffee commercials. The chase sequences are a blatant excuse to get the ol' green screen out, making the action seem even less physical or believable. At every possible turn there is a pursuit of style over content, and speed over intelligence.
The Adjustment Bureau is a deeply disappointing film which lacks the depth, nuance or subtlety of the best Philip K. Dick adaptations. In Nolfi's hands what could be a potentially interesting sci-fi romance becomes something flimsy, frothy and ultimately too ridiculous. I would be lying if I said I didn't laugh, either mockingly at the film or out of charm at the central couple. But laughter isn't enough to do justice, either to Dick's material or to the central relationship, resulting in a case of squandered potential that could have been so much more.