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Film Review: The Adjustment Bureau

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God Botherers

(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?

6 Responses

  1. james murphy says:

    Well said! God, what a load of utter codswallop this movie was! Infantile concept, childish plot, babyish execution – And what’s with the silly hats? – How do these movies get made? If it looks like a turkey and clucks like a turkey….. – Why did no-one at the studios or distributors’ HQ see early on (i.e. when it was pitched) that this was flightless, obese Xmas bird gobbling straight to the butcher’s block?!

  2. rick haverly says:

    So, I thought it pleasant, and an interesting set of thoughts on the motives behind predestination.

    You see, some of your assumptions in this review are pretty clear, Mr. Whitfield—that personal contentment and complete freedom of choice are the most important things, period and that “the almighty” knows what the future is. What if your assumptions aren’t the same as the assumptions held by the filmmakers? Well, then that puts your review pretty much in the shitter, doesn’t it?

    Which leaves behind the idea that the filmmakers may have created different assumptions for the film. Perhaps… that these men in hats aren’t human and don’t share humanity’s same way of thinking even though they look human to humans—just like “the chairman”—that the chairman’s goal might be to preserve humanity’s existence and increase its happiness overall while maintaining some sort of balance between free will and predestination, that these men in hats have limitations that don’t necessarily make a lot of sense (but can sure wind up useful as plot contrivances!), that the chairman might choose to take a hands-off approach, and then wait a little while before putting his hands back in.

    By leaving my assumptions at the door, I thought it became a pretty interesting ride to see how the film and plot progress while simultaneously puzzling out the assumptions that the filmmakers made as they adapted Philip K. Dick’s short story and edited it into a coherent work.

    That said, if you hadn’t walked into this film with a host of your own issues this review might not have been scathing or entertaining, and mr. murphy would have had to go somewhere else to get his rocks off with whining commentary.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      Interesting points, Rick. I’d just make a few of my own by way of a response. First, let’s tackle your monster assumption that I entered the screening with a host of issues; I didn’t. I don’t view anything with any preconceptions whatsoever. Any view I take is based on what happens between the opening and end credits.

      Second, regarding this notion of the filmmakers having different ideas about what the film’s about, or may mean, if you want to put it in those terms, it’s not my job to review the imaginary movie they had in their head, rather the one cut together and presented to audiences. If the information on screen doesn’t tally with the filmmaker’s personal take on the material, that’s their problem not mine; I restrict my comments to what made the final cut.

      Third, although the chairman being God is an assumption, it’s a reasonable one based on the material. I don’t say he can see the future necessarily, only predict it, and the reason I don’t say otherwise is because the film doesn’t say otherwise; there you’ll note I’m sticking to what I know or can reasonably infer from the information provided.

      We know the chairman is in the business of predicting the future, or imposing a scheme on it at least, because that’s what the bureau is for; monitoring your life plan and making sure you stick to it. That raises a few questions, not least about the bureau’s ability to make accurate and useful predictions. I refer to their decision to take time off just before WW1 for example, despite the life plans of all those involved being presumbably quite advanced at that point.

      Also, having sat out the First World War, it seems odd that it didn’t occur to the chairman to step back in. Instead he allowed the world to move toward another war…and then let that happen. Of course the real reason he stepped out is so that the filmmakers can get God off the hook when it comes to being responsible for the administration of human suffering. He’s conveniently off duty during the dark ages – all 500 years of them, AWOL during the holocaust, on holiday during the use of nuclear weapons. The movie says these things are our fault, because we were acting without regulation, but with regulation re-imposed, from the sixties onwards, we still rape, murder, go to war on numerous occasions, fly planes into buildings and all the rest of it, so that makes no sense whatsoever. I don’t know if Dick’s story had a better grip on logic than this movie but the film has little or no internal logic. It’s pseudo-religious hokum.

      Yes, I’m happy to say that I think being content and happy is more important than being celebrated or powerful. That, to correct you, is not an assumption, it’s an opinion. The film represents different values to my own and part of discussing it, is not taking that set of values as a given but challenging them to encourage you to think about what the filmmakers did.

      Opinions on this point in other reviews will differ. It is of course up to you to decide whether you agree with one, some or none of those arguments. Ultimately, if you agree with the Bureau’s argument, namely that being happy should be subordinate to realising your full potential for the benefit of others, then you won’t have a problem with this movie. It’s a solid, traditional Christian argument – subordinate your selfish desires to a higher purpose, i.e. that of God and his grand plan. Sounds a bit like slavery to me, but each to their own…assuming they have any say in the matter.

  3. rick haverly says:

    Thanks for responding. I really appreciate hearing the rest of your take on this movie.

  4. Lance Pubis says:

    Hey Ed! I really liked your review and liked your responce to Mr. Haverly even better. I was irritated when I went to see this movie because I thought that it was going to be a “thriller.” Instead I was blind-sided by a chick flick. The thing that I couldn’t get out of my head was that Emily Blunt’s character didn’t want to marry her boyfriend because she pined for Matt Damon . After it becomes clear that Damon is a little strange she decides to marry her boyfriend after all.

    However, she then leaves her boyfriend standing at the alter (so to speak) to run off with Damon. I felt bad for the boyfriend (although we never really get to meet him) because he’s wasted the last three years of his life on this heartless-selfish wench.

    I also couldn’t help myself from laughing at this “world-class” dancer’s attempt at dancing.

    Ha-ha! hee-hee!

  5. Matthew Y says:

    Ed:

    I enjoyed your review of The Adjustment Bureau. You had many insights I had not picked up on, such as why the Bureau would not have interfered with Hitler’s parents. I would differ with you in one area–I did not see the religious overtones and the possibility of the Chairman being God. Hollywood tends to knock Christianity or at least not display it in a positive light. As such, if they intended the Bureau to have religious connotations, I feel they were depicting them (the Bureau) as the antagonists, which Matt Damon had to battle and overcome in order to find happiness. (Didn’t you notice the disclaimer after the credits at the end of the movie: ANY DEPICTION OF CHRISTIANITY IN A POSITIVE IMAGE IS MERE COINCIDENCE, AND THE MAKERS OF THIS FILM ACCEPT NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR SUCH UNINTENDED REPRESENTATIONS.