Adjustment Bureau adjustment a small improvement

The Adjustment Bureau got pretty good reviews, so I was a little taken aback at its gossamer-thin plotline and schlocky conclusion.  I knew it was a remake of a 1954 short story called “Adjustment Team” by Philip K. Dick, the granddaddy of American sci-fi.  Curious to see where the fault lay, I read that story today…

Ed Fletcher walks into his office building late, in the middle of an adjustment–everything’s been “de-energized,” turned to dust.  He escapes and has to be called upstairs for a meeting with the Old Man, who lets him go on the condition he tells no one what he’s learned.  But Ed can’t think of a good lie when his wife asks him where he’s been, and he’s just about to reveal all. . .when just in time, a vacuum cleaner salesman shows up to distract her.  Ed is weak with relief: “He gazed up, a look of gratitude on his face.  ‘Thanks,’ he said softly.  ‘I think we’ll make it–after all.  Thanks a lot.'”

The End.

So it’s my guess that the scriptwriters of the Matt Damon movie looked at the optioned source material and–apologies to Mr. Dick, may he R.I.P.–shat their pants.  A meek office drone, too stupid to think up a decent alibi.  An insipid wife eating “creamed tuna on toast, and peach pie” for lunch while he tells her what happened.  A shadowy yet tedious bureaucracy of Agents carrying out Orders.  Nothing–I mean nothing–about this story is interesting, let alone filmworthy.

Except its premise.  Speculative fiction always coalesces around a single, tantalizing “what if?” question.  “Adjustment Team” asks, What if we took seriously the cliché of things running ‘according to plan’?  What if there were a whole team of people employed in keeping the world’s events unfolding in conformity to a divine plan?

The Adjustment Bureau borrows this intriguing premise and tries to build a feature film around it.  It retains the male protagonist, the hierarchy of fedora-wearing Watchers and Clerks (a bid for retro cool that only sort of works), and the bargain for silence.  It supplements the original with a political-ambition backdrop, a sympathetic ally from the Bureau, and–most ambitiously–a romance.

The relationship between John (Damon) and Elyse (Emily Blunt) is convincingly heart-wrenching.  That first bathroom scene–Elyse hopping up on the counter to tsk at his tie, John visibly shaken by her audacious beauty–sets an impossibly high standard for the rest of the movie.  I loved the way their flirtation, right from the start, has an undertow of desperation.  Somehow, Damon’s face manages to reveal dread as well as fascination in the scene, like John senses he’s dealing with archaic concepts like destiny and troth that have no traction in the real world.

Alas, it was all downhill from there.  And speaking of speculation: my date wondered if by any chance a Calvinist was involved somewhere in the adaptation of this story.  You got yer Predestination vs. free will, yer total-depravity-of-Man lecture, yer irresistible grace surprising everyone at the end.  It’s been done before, people…

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