(The Adjustment Bureau, George Nolfi, US, 2011, 99mins)
Hindsight sharpens the eyes to the absurdities of this high concept cockblocking exercise, not least in the retrospectively strange opening, in which Matt Damon’s senatorial candidate rubs shoulders with real figures from the American political and media scene. To see Michael Bloomberg endorse this homo fictus, to watch him rub shoulders with Jesse Jackson and Jon Stewart, there’s a notion that the real world may have some purchase on what follows. Ninety-nine minutes later you’ll wonder how you ever thought it.
Shorn of the fantastical, this might have been an engaging enough romance. The casting is better than the picture deserves. Both Damon and Emily Blunt have a healthy chemistry, they trade laughs and tears with the force of a real relationship and I rooted for them between the moments I lost my mind, trying to understand why a divinely instituted bureaucracy would waste so much time trying to keep them apart on the grounds that she’d kill his political career by filling his soul with contentment and he’d stifle her ambitions, as she’d settle for being a dance tutor and wife rather than a world class performer. Surely if this intelligent pair just promised to enjoy each other AND stay career focused, we could all go home, but apparently it’s beyond the wit of these masters of the universe to propose such a thing, nor does it occur to Matt Damon to guarantee the same.
The Bureau’s dictat is certainly a blow to the notion, held by a few lunatics, that there’s nothing more important in life than being happy. Apparently it’s more important to be ambitious and attain some sort of status. There’s the germ of a philosophical argument there, after all what sort of world would it be without competition and the vision thing? Atlas Shrugged perhaps. Nolfi’s hoisted by his own petard, unfortunately, because so natural a couple are Damon and Blunt and so clear is it that they’re exactly what each other needs, that the Bureau’s motive seems absurd, cruel even.
The premise, lifted from a Phillip K. Dick short story and a real albatross around the film’s neck, is the only conceit that I can recall that ever pulled off the difficult trick of being both insulting to the soul AND the intellect. In a scene that will break some, Terrance Stamp explains that the Bureau, free from equal opportunities legalisation and run by a chairman whose true identity remains ambiguous, lest the movie mire itself in scripture, is a Nanny agency, formed to prevent human kind misusing its feeble intellect. We’re children, explains Stamp, who can’t be trusted not to use our freewill for nefarious purposes. God, the elephant in the room, tried it and the result was the dark ages. It isn’t explained why he waited 500 years to terminate the experiment and let so many of us suffer, but this is one of many lapses you’ll have to take in your stride.
Then, in a moment that will ruin the scientific establishment, it’s revealed that we were gifted the period of discovery and understanding that we call the enlightenment. Rather than threatening religious hegemony with empirical understanding as we imagined, the whole thing was simply a deistic device employed to keep us in line; a knowledge sedative if you will. The almighty then withdrew again in 1910, which is strange considering he can predict the future, and was apparently shocked to note the ensuing world wars, the holocaust and 51 million other miscellaneous deaths, the invention of atomic weapons and so forth, so since 1962, explaining the period garb adorned by the Bureau’s male only workforce, they’ve been keeping each and every person on the planet under surveillance, nudging where appropriate, so they stay on their preordained path.
When one considers that this premise is the engine of the plot, you’d hope that more work would have been done on ensuring it had some semblance of internal logic. Nolfi tries to create enough loopholes so the audience doesn’t waste time trying to work out what’s going on, but the questions keep piling up. Why is proximity to water an impediment to the Bureau’s perception when 90% of the planet is covered in it? That’s a bit of a divine own goal. Angelic agents can’t read minds but they can wipe them and use telekinesis to cause minor accidents? If plans can be rewritten and often are, why have them? It just seems like a lot of arbitrary forward planning that’s unduly labour intensive. Oh and why pick on a nice couple like Damon and Blunt when Hitler’s parents, young and horny in the 19th century when the Bureau were on duty, might have been better targets for an intervention? Didn’t these geniuses see any problems there?
This is pure flab hanging off an otherwise lean romance. It seems ludicrous to market this as a thriller when there are no thrills at all, just a series of fantastical complications preventing what we imagine to be great sex. In a less contrived boy meets girl-a-thon, said problems would take on the form of an obnoxious boyfriend or the misreading of signals, all of which take a back seat here to a group of hat wearing desk jockeys that seem absolutely flummoxed by this lonely man’s determination to pursue a woman he’s attracted to.
That said, Damon’s a hard man to read. Who’d take the same bus for three years in the hope of meeting a woman you’d spent an hour with? Not me, but the passage of time seems to matter very little to this pair, both emerging the other side of each flash forward looking identical and seemingly unchanged by events. We know time has passed because they tell us so, else we’d have no idea. Perhaps the plan was that the film would be more focused than this, maybe have greater drama, more pace; sadly George Nolfi had his own ideas. Freewill, eh?