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.
Hormones can wreak havoc on the teenage brain causing it to contemplate all sorts of mischief in its drive to sate its carnal appetite. In the R-rated teen comedy Youth in Revolt directed by Miguel Arteta and starring Michael Cera (Juno Superbad) and newcomer Portia Doubleday the volatile combo becomes downright hazardous.
The “teen” label is highly debatable here as Youth in Revolt’s hapless protagonist Nick (Cera) and his impish paramour Sheeni (Doubleday) are both too quick-witted and hyper-articulate to qualify as mere high school sophomores. It’s the Juno debate: I don’t know if any teens actually talk like this but if they do I guarantee none are as sophisticated or attractive as our Nick and Sheeni. No Youth in Revolt is more like a hipster’s whimsical projection of what his adolescence might have looked like if it weren’t spent buried in an issue of McSweeney’s. And on that level — as a sort of Porky’s for intellectuals — it actually works.
Though his vocabulary is highly advanced 16-year-old Nick shares one important trait in common with most boys his age: He’d like to lose his virginity preferably as soon as possible. But his chances seem woefully slim until he meets Sheeni an attractive girl possessing a mind as sharp as his but without the nagging insecurity and sexual inhibition. To top it off Sheeni appears more than willing to escort Nick into manhood; circumstances however conspire to thwart them at nearly every turn driving Nick to increasingly desperate lengths to be joined with her. Egged on by an imaginary wingman his shrewdly Machiavellian alter ego Francois Dillinger (also Cera) Nick’s actions escalate from mere lies and manipulation to arson and auto theft with startling speed and he soon earns the attention of the authorities.
With the cops hot on his trail Nick spends the last third of the film in a sort of hormone-fueled version of The Fugitive racing against time to crack the case of his virginity before being dragged away to juvenile hall. It’s one of the many odd shifts in tone that plague Youth in Revolt as Arteta can’t seem to decide between raunchy sex comedy and surreal coming-of-age tale. Thankfully he’s able to fall back on the talents of Cera and Doubleday whose amusing and endearing — if suspiciously mature — repartee carries the film.