Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau Review (Review #200)


I think it would be only fair to say that I do not believe in predestination before going into The Adjustment Bureau. Therefore, since I believe in free will, I don't accept the notion that a group of mysterious beings, on orders of The Chairman (their terminology), will do what they can to have our lives take a particular course. These are the kind of questions The Adjustment Bureau was trying to raise: do we control our own lives or does an outside source do it for us, but the film stumbled slightly in its efforts to try to answer them.

David Norris (Matt Damon) is a fast-living, attractive Congressman making a run for the U.S. Senate for New York. He is on the verge of winning when a scandal hits: a photo hits the front pages, scuttling his election. In a shocking upset, New York votes, horror of horrors, for a Republican. It must have been a truly scandalous photo to have made the blue state see red.

In any case, defeated and dejected, David goes into the hotel restroom to practice his concession speech. While there, he is surprised to find a beautiful woman emerging from one of the stalls. This mystery woman and David start to talking, and an instant attraction forms, culminating in a passionate kiss. David delivers a 'powerful' speech that puts him on the road to a comeback.

David, now in private life, bumps into the mysterious woman on the bus, and he finally scores her phone number and name. She is Elise (Emily Blunt), and with this bit of information David is on his way to his new job. There is only one problem: they were never to see each other again.

Richardson (John Slattery), one of the Men With Hats who oversee the world entire, had told another one of the Men With Hats, Harry (Anthony Mackie) that David had to spill coffee on himself by 7:05 a.m. and thus avoid getting on the bus. Harry, however, had fallen asleep waiting on the park bench and woke too late to stop David getting on the bus. As much as he tried to chase after him, even using his powers to have him spill his coffee inside the bus, David makes it to work to see more Men With Hats and every mortal at the office frozen, unaware of what's going on.

Richardson and his paratroopers take David and tell him who they are: they are the Adjustment Bureau, making sure that the plans for certain individuals stay on the correct course. He tells David that he is never to see Elise again, which David doesn't like but which if he tries will force Richardson to reset (or basically lobotomize) David.

Cut to three years. David still dreams for Elise and wouldn't you know it: he does see her walking down the street. He discovers that she's a dancer and wants to spend every moment he can with her, even if it means postponing his campaign announcement/rally where the people and press are waiting. The Adjustment Bureau is horrified by the turn of events, and they rush about to get them separated. David is determined to get his own way, and the situation starts growing more desperate for the bureau, so they bring in The Hammer, aka Thompson (Terence Stamp).

He tells David that once, he and Elise were meant to be together, but that was an earlier draft of The Chairman's plan. Thompson goes on to say that the Adjustment Bureau kept things in check until the fall of Rome, when The Chairman opted to pull them back. That of course, meant giving humans total free will, but it meant we messed it up: going through the Dark Ages until they went back in and brought about the Renaissance. Again the Bureau stayed in until 1910, but again humans botched the job: a Depression, two world wars and the bomb. Again the Bureau went in and has stayed in for our own good.

The Chairman's plans for David are quite simple: for him to win the election, and then four more races, not all of them for Senate. The Chairman, then, wants David to be President, which I figure would make this omnipotent being a Democrat. If, however, David chooses to go against his plan by staying with Elise, it will not only mean the end of David's political career, but Elise will not be the revolutionary dancer/choreographer she was meant to be, but a mere dance teacher.

To give him time to think it through, Thompson causes Elise to fall during her performance, resulting in a mere fracture, for now. David decides to leave her in the hospital. Cut to eleven months: David is almost assured victory, but he sees an article on Elise which includes her engagement. Harry, acting as his Deep Throat, steps in to help David get Elise, going so far as to give him his own hat, the hats help the Bureau members traverse the city but also limit their powers, as does water be it rain or rivers. Now, with a plan of his own, David finds Elise before she marries and carries her off, with Thompson and his men in mad pursuit. In the end, all is well.

While The Adjustment Bureau is a good film it isn't as good as it could have been. There is an awful lot of running around in the film, which is all right for an action/chase film but which leads me to ask a particular question that I didn't have answered.

If the members of the Bureau have these extraordinary powers (remember, Harry got David to spill his coffee inside the bus), why didn't they just engineer things better? Why didn't Harry just cause the bus to stop, which would have jerked the bus to cause David to spill his coffee, which would have caused him to go back to change clothes, which would have avoided him walking in on the Bureau members working at David's office? See, problem solved.

If the Bureau can get to any part of New York by going through doors that take them from say Brooklyn to Manhattan to Yankee Stadium to the Statue of Liberty, why are they finding it so hard to catch up to David and Elise, mere mortals that they are? These beings can go through any door and take people to their holding cell for wayward mortals, but they can't catch up to David and Elise? In short, it is difficult to believe the Bureau can be as powerful over mortals if they are so patently inept at keeping track of him.

It seems amazing that writer/director George Nolfi, adapting Phillip Dick's short story Adjustment Team", could have made an hour and forty-five minutes feel longer. It might have been because we needed a few chase scenes, but at times The Adjustment Bureau drags by trying to be more action and less thought.

Yes, it is trying to ask deep questions of who controls our futures:ourselves, or an outside source, but it doesn't really seem interested in offering any answers other than True Love Will Win Out. Why exactly David loves Elise or vice-versa, other than they feel they do because those are emotions left over from a previous draft of their plans, is not answered. Besides a physical attraction between David and Elise you don't see how their relationship could have been built up on what is essentially one to two dates spanning over three years.

If one wanted to get really philosophical about things, since their attraction/passion was a result of leftover senses from earlier plans for their lives, they really weren't fighting Fate or The Bureau but in actuality fulfilling their plans.

The performances were nothing particular special but not horrid. Damon's David seemed incredibly unbelieving of his situation, and once or twice even disengaged. When he is taken to the Bureau's garage for interrogation, Elise's phone number is burned before his eyes. His reaction is more whiny than angry or heartbroken at having lost the chance to know his One True Love's number.

Blunt was better, able to show the confusion as to why, even after being abandoned twice by David, she still felt that there was something between them. It is difficult to believe that after a short conversation two people would passionately kiss, but I figure in a movie one has to suspend some disbelief. Slattery appears to be having fun being the mysterious Richardson, who is a being merely interested that things go the way he thinks they should go but not interested in his charges. Stamp brings some menace to Thompson, but I would figure a character like The Hammer would play rough with David. Instead, he just warns David to get back on the plan and get elected President like any good boy should.

If any performance got to me, it was Mackie's Harry, the only Bureau member with a first name. It wasn't that it was bad, although he did have only one expression, that of being forlorn at how he handled David's life from practically birth (no Clarence was he), but in the fact that his character comes dangerously close to being that cliche of the Mystical Black Man, that otherworldly being who comes to help the Anglo character fulfill his destiny. It was getting to be Mackie was coming to being another Bagger Vance, which oddly enough also starred Matt Damon.

Coincidence, or was it all part of The Plan?.

I figure that if The Adjustment Bureau actually wanted to get their own way, they could have easily have manipulated Elise to do their bidding. Perhaps Nolfi and company wanted me to answer those deep questions about free will vs. predestination for myself with The Adjustment Bureau prompting me to do so. Trouble with that is I already have asked and answered those for myself. Perhaps the resolution to the crisis David and Elise were going through was a little pat and unsurprising.

If they had pushed themselves to go beyond a happy ending or not looked so glum and at times disengaged from what all of them were doing and saying, The Adjustment Bureau could have been a deep film. It right now is a halfway decent action film with smatterings of philosophy in it.  The Adjustment Bureau, I think, wanted it both ways: a deep introspective film and an action film, and the imbalance between the two kept it from being either.

At least one good thing did come from The Adjustment Bureau: it made me want to wear my fedora and bowler in public again.

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