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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

Matt Damon, Emily Blunt star in Philip K. Dick adaptation

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Philip K. Dick was a prolific author who saw the shadowy hands behind the curtain of reality. He may have been an avatar of paranoia, but his sensibility touched on fundamental questions concerning perception, knowledge and the meaning of being human in a technological age. Beginning with Blade Runner (1982), a movie whose premiere he never lived to attend, filmmakers have interpreted Dick's work, popularizing his name well beyond the boundaries of the science-fiction genre to which he was usually consigned.

The latest film based on one of his stories, The AdjustmentBureau, manages to find a Hollywood ending for a protagonist who discovers himself trapped in a Gnostic world where unseen forces determine the course of his life. Playing the protagonist is the always-likable Matt Damon, here as David Norris, a young New York Congressman seeking a seat in the Senate. With his shy, half-crooked smile and mild, affable demeanor, Norris can work a room of insiders and a packed auditorium of supporters with equal ease. And yet he is acutely aware, and uncomfortable, about the illusions spun around his persona by professional consultants who determine everything from the color of his necktie to the scuff marks on his shoes.

But the conjuring of the spin doctors is a child's game compared to what he discovers when he walks into a conference room to find its occupants as stiff as mannequins and being mentally "reset" by a strange crew of men in gray—humorless yet somehow not entirely unsympathetic figures in suits, ties and hats. They could kill Norris for seeing what men have seldom beheld, but that's not in their plan. In fact, they are the expeditors of a grand plan encompassing everyone in the world, a scheme so vast that only the "Chairman," as they call the head of their hierarchical corporation, can grasp its full compass.

The men in gray have unusual powers; they can manipulate cell phones, landlines and automobiles. They can't entirely read thoughts but are well trained to know our minds. They are implacable but not omnipotent; rain and bodies of water leave them flummoxed. They have bosses who have bosses who serve the unseen Chairman. This demiurge thinks Norris is a good man, wants him elected president of the United States and won't permit him to be distracted by falling in love with a bright, beautiful ballet dancer, Elise (Emily Blunt). "We're here to keep you on plan," the men insist.

By way of a brief explanation, one of the men in gray mentions that his corporation has directed human affairs from the get-go, sometimes allowing humanity the full exercise of free will while at other times keeping a tight rein on our potential to run entirely amok. They want to prevent humanity from wrecking the planet, and with that aim they will alter reality to put Norris in the White House.

Chance? They admit that random events can sometimes occur. Freedom? People can make decisions over the small things, like their brand of toothpaste, but in the larger scheme our decisions have already been determined. Enforcement? One of the men in gray admits that they lack the numbers to be everywhere at once. They can sometimes be thwarted or at least delayed.

One can imagine from the onset that since this is a Hollywood movie, romantic love will conquer all. Although it's not an idea Dick would have fully endorsed, The AdjustmentBureau is a stylish, never dull, even somewhat compelling story touching on the quandaries of philosophy. The couple at the heart of the drama is attractive and easy to root for and the men in gray, even the midlevel manager played by a grim-jawed Terence Stamp, are not evil. Of course, if Dick had directed it, The Adjustment Bureau might have told a darker tale about the hidden rulers of this world.
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