"That Philip K. Dick guy is pretty good. But what would really make his work awesome is if it was turned into a romantic dramedy."
If you've ever said those words, or something along those lines, then you — and only you — are the target audience for The Adjustment Bureau, the new movie opening today.
The idea of merging Dickian storytelling with romantic comedy is counterintuitive, to say the least. Many of Dick's best stories have to do with melting down the status quo, or seeing the lies behind it. Without making too much of a broad generalization, many of Dick's protagonists end up being permanently left out of the received version of reality, either because they can no longer go along with the compulsory falsehoods, or because they've damaged the facade's hidden supports in some meaningful way.
Romantic comedy/drama, meanwhile, is about returning to normality. Almost every romance features a stretch halfway through where the two main characters are brought together and almost achieve oneness, only to be driven apart by some crisis which must be resolved — so in a sense, the consummation of the romantic relationship is also the restoration of order, and a final confirmation that the social order is right.
Add to that the fact that Dick's work, in itself, is often a bit of a genre mash-up. Dick's writing combines extreme pulpiness (including things like what Thomas Disch called the "downhill racer" style of plot resolution) with the focussed weirdness of the New Wave, and a hefty dose of literary aspirations. Dick often seemed to be trying to steer between more literary and more pulpy works — at one point in the early 1960s, he thought he could bridge "the gap between the experimental mainstream novel and science fiction" successfully — and a lot of his work sort of blends these disparate styles, which is part of what makes it so fascinating.
All of which is to say, taking a quintessentially alarming Philip K. Dick story and adding rom-com tropes to it is a weirdly compelling notion, which could conceivably end up in a brilliant fusion — something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Or it could turn into a bland muddle, in which neither Dick's raw ideas nor the charm of a romantic comedy is allowed to flourish.
Guess which outcome happens with The Adjustment Bureau.
Actually, the first half of The Adjustment Bureau is pretty great, and it raises your hopes for a smart, slightly subversive romance — only to dash them in the second half. In a nutshell, Matt Damon is a politician who's running for the Senate. Just as his campaign falters, he meets a mysterious, beautiful free spirit (Emily Blunt) who kisses him in the men's room and spurs him to give a brilliant, incendiary concession speech. Later, he meets her on a bus and she puts his ringing phone in a cup of coffee, which immediately establishes her as a quirky artist type.
Meanwhile, we — the viewers — become aware that nattily dressed men are spying on Damon and manipulating events to make sure he makes the choices they want him to. (He only meets Blunt on the bus because these men fail to prevent that meeting.)
We eventually learn that there's a shadowy organization called the Adjustment Bureau who control the fates of ordinary people. Are they aliens? Or angels? It's never made clear. But they have weird books that show the pathways that each person will take, and they can make strange doorways to take them from one part of the city to another, as long as they wear their magic hats. The Adjustment Bureau has something very specific in mind for Matt Damon's politician, and this plan does not involve him hooking up with Emily Blunt's bohemian-ish dancer.
One bold choice that The Adjustment Bureau makes is that Damon finds out about the shadowy organization fairly early in the film, and there's no "unraveling the conspiracy" storyline. Someone basically decides that it's easier to explain the situation to Damon, so he knows that there's a secret group of 1950s-esque men who control everything. (They're so Mad Men-y, their number includes John Slattery.) And they tell Damon that if he so much as hints to anyone about the Adjustment Bureau's existence, they will lobotomize him — grand plans for his political future be damned.
So it won't shock anybody to find out that Damon does eventually start a relationship with Emily Blunt's beautiful, untrammeled dancer. Together, they are wild and spontaneous and go to raves and stuff. And he's able to open up to her in ways he can't with anybody else, telling her the truth behind all of the political myths he's been spinning about himself all his adult life. Damon and Blunt are both winsome performers, and the scenes of their burgeoning relationship really are nicely done and sympathetic. And finally, Damon faces the dilemma you knew all along he was going to face — he can fight for his relationship with Emily Blunt, but then the Adjustment Bureau will destroy both his future and Blunt's. This happens about halfway through the movie. Maybe slightly more than halfway.
And that's where the movie starts to unravel. Without giving too much of the second half away, the tension between "Dickian paranoia" and "romance candy" begins to pull the threads of the film apart. (I got about halfway throught he movie, and I'd been building up my hopes that this was turning into something really good, and the second half felt like a palpable letdown.)
We can't root for Damon to topple the whole apparatus of the Adjustment Bureau's social control, because that's not a realistic outcome — and there's no way he could overthrow the secret masters of the human race and achieve the idyllic love-match we all want for him. Romance requires social stability, for the most part.
The way in which The Adjustment Bureau will address the contradiction between "seeing behind the curtain" and "picking out drapes together" is hinted at early in the film — basically, the movie resorts to the time-honored device of the "Magical Negro." Without going into too much detail, the only African American character in the film is a member of the Adjustment Bureau (Anthony Mackie) who disagrees with his colleagues, and risks literally everything to help Matt Damon. He's pretty much the classic Magical Negro archetype, and his motivations are cloudy at best.
There's a great story buried under the ill-thought-out story choices in The Adjustment Bureau — Damon's character fighting for love in spite of the choices that have been made for him by the people who are secretly in charge. The movie occasionally offers up little insights into Damon's character, and the paradox that people respond to his spontenaiety and genuineness, but too much genuineness or spontenaiety will turn off voters. (And Blunt's character may bring out too much of Damon's wild-card side for comfort.) There are really fascinating questions and ideas bubbling just below the surface of the film, but writer/director George Nolfi is too quick to resort to the easy, cozy solution.
Like the original Dick story "The Adjustment Team," the movie never really holds out much hope of revolution. And maybe it's not fair to expect something so ambitious from a film that, at heart, is really just a romance with sinister overtones. But ultimately, this film's failure to tell a more interesting story makes it a boring romance, too. And the weakness of the film's third act lets down the characters in a pretty major way.
If there really were a group of Eisenhowery dudes who secretly masterminded everything that happens in the world, then a romance that defied their wishes would be something grand and terrible. But a Hollywood movie doesn't have the stomach to show us that, so instead we have to settle for something a bit insipid. And that's the real tragedy of trying to shoehorn Philip K. Dick's oddness into a run-of-the-mill love story.