The age-old debate over fate vs. free will has been and always will be a tough theme to crack in any medium but with the benefits of modern filmmaking technology the theory can be explored in ways that Philip K. Dick never imagined. However when one relies too heavily on spectacle to tell a story a piece of cerebral science fiction can quickly become just another action extravaganza. In this day and age there’s a fine line between the two; The Matrix walked that tightrope with style and grace while Next never found its footing in the first place. Fortunately the precious work of novelist Dick has for the most part been treated with respect by Hollywood (the aforementioned Nic Cage dud notwithstanding) but that doesn’t necessarily mean movies based on his stories are completely faithful to his vision.
Case in point: George Nolfi’s directorial debut The Adjustment Bureau an adaptation of Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team.” The film stars Matt Damon as David Norris a successful businessman and rising political candidate who after a chance encounter with the girl of his dreams (Emily Blunt) loses a crucial election. He happens to run into her on a Manhattan bus the following week before finding his office swarming with masked men who are “adjusting” everyone inside. Richardson (John Slattery) the man in charge captures Norris who unsuccessfully flees the scene after seeing behind “a curtain he wasn’t even supposed to know existed” as the enigmatic figure puts it. From that point on Norris must live with the knowledge that he (and we for that matter) is not in control of his own life. Rather the choices he makes fit perfectly into “The Plan” that’s been written by “the Chairman”.
In relation to my earlier statement I have to say that Nolfi’s picture looks stunning but his natural urban aesthetic doesn’t overpower the story. Sleek contemporary production design and elegant costumes characterize the high-concept story and the wraithlike agents who shape our destinies. Topically we’re dealing with some heavy material but Nolfi and editor Jay Rabinowitz move the action along at a brisk pace that keeps you engaged and entertained without having to try. The film is properly proportioned as a chase thriller romantic adventure and sci-fi fantasy and thankfully no component overshadows another.
Setting the film in the world of politics and big business helps make its larger-than-life revelations a bit more accessible (as do appearances from Michael Bloomberg Jon Stewart and Chuck Scarborough) while providing sub-text about the corruption involved in elections and campaigns (there are conspicuous shades of The Manchurian Candidate in the movie) but the writer-director often tries too hard for broad appeal. For a film with existential implications as severe as they are here the dialogue is at times hokey and superficial. Dick’s source material is far more abstract and Nolfi for the sake of commercial success panders to the palette of soccer moms and mallrats.
What’s worse is his unwarranted exposition of the Bureau a shadowy organization whose major allure is anonymity. Some secrets are best kept and less can be so much more when crafting a mysterious atmosphere; Nolfi reaches that level of magnetic curiosity but squanders it as he reveals the truth about the Bureau and its grand scheme. On the other hand he brushes over the technical lingo between agents Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) McCrady (Anthony Ruivivar) and others without explanation perhaps hoping that the ambiguous terminology will fool you into thinking that his script is smarter than it really is.
Even though Nolfi’s allegorical conclusions are uncomfortably ham-fisted the chemistry between Damon and Blunt alone is enough to enchant you; this is one highly watchable cinematic pairing that should be revisited as soon as possible. Their innocent relationship blossoms organically and together they make it seem as natural on screen as it is for their star-crossed characters. Even if you have a hard time believing in higher powers or manipulative Orwellian forces you’ll have faith in David and Elise’s fated relationship one of the most captivating couplings I’ve seen on the big-screen in some time.
Handsome James (Paul Dawson) is a bit depressed. In the opening scene he pees while taking a bath and then sets up his camera as he fellates himself while a stalker across the street (Peter Stickles) watches. Then James cries. He's miserable and his boyfriend Jamie (P.J. DeBoy) doesn't know what to do. They go to a sex therapist Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee). She in turn has incredible sex--or at least finds incredible positions--with her husband Rob (Raphael Barker) but she can't achieve an orgasm. They all end up at a wild club called Shortbus which looks like a room even Caligula would love and whose guests range from a former mayor of New York to a popular drag queen Justin Bond (playing his/herself). It's at Shortbus where James and Jamie meet young Ceth (Jay Brannan) and to try to add spice to their relationship while Sofia meets an angry dominatrix named Severin (Lindsay Beamish) who thinks she can help with Sofia's quest. The most amazing part of Shortbus comes from the performers who are as real as it gets. Mitchell tries to get the actors to play parts of themselves asking them to reenact their most bizarre sexual experiences and developing the storylines around them. With that Mitchell is quoted in the press notes as saying that every orgasm is genuine--except one and he's not saying which one. For this reason perhaps the cast is filled with virtual unknowns except for a few choice cameos (character actor/publicist Mickey Cottrell with a dead guy in a whirlpool is a particularly good one). But the players are all superb in their own individual ways especially Dawson as the sad-eyed stud and Lee as the desperate therapist. Beamish also shows quite an emotional range and looks like a modern-day Cyndi Lauper. Watch for her star to rise. John Cameron Mitchell best known for his searing little indie gem Hedwig and the Angry Inch apparently auditioned 100 people by throwing a rather sexually open party not unlike the parties shown in the film. But Mitchell has got more than an inch showing up in Shortbus. It's as if he has re-made The Rocky Horror Picture Show into a non-musical live NC-17 version. All the film’s sexual explicitness seems almost voyeuristic but dances around being pornographic or grotesque. In fact the scenes are often devoid of eroticism coming across as funny creepy and sad instead. Mitchell also paints an intriguing canvas mixing animation and art as the camera swoops into different neighborhoods around Manhattan. Ultimately the parade of sexuality and bizarre characters plays like a Federico Fellini film but it makes much more sense. Mitchell's picture is raw but heartfelt and it’s going to make audiences uncomfortable. But obviously that's the point.