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The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau

I think the buildings are after them. And the hats.

dir: George Nolfi

Great, another film convincing paranoid schizophrenics that someone really IS out to get them…

This fairly good flick, which I liked a lot, is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, the mentally ill science fiction writer who’s been dead a long while. Almost every science fiction movie, if not every movie is either based on or should be based on something Philip K. Dick came up with. And why not. His most famous adaptation is of course Blade Runner, but there are probably nearly a hundred other monstrosities based on his stuff out there as well.

The important element you need to grasp about Dick’s writing, if you know or care nothing about him or his writing, is that paranoia underlaid virtually everything he ever wrote. Almost every novel or short story of his that I can remember has a protagonist, who may or may not be crazy, who senses or gleans that someone is either after him or tinkering at the edges of his reality. And always always always, if someone thinks ‘they’ are out to get him, ‘they’ always are. None of his protagonists ever realise in the end that they were just being irrational and paranoid. Never ever ever. Now that’s some good support for the delusions of the mentally ill right there.

The Adjustment Bureau not only reflects this ‘shadowy figures messing with my life/head’ concept, it extends it out further so that the entire architecture of all our lives seems to be already prefabricated. It just needs some adjusting, every now and then, because our free will is, actually, an illusion. There’s a Plan, and we’re never going to be privy to it. But some beings are. And they’ve got hats.

These kinds of stories usually play up the danger/thriller aspect of being pursued by shadowy types, but this flick opts for a less shadowy, though no less implacable set of foes. So though the flick lacks a discernible villain, it nonetheless arrays forces against our protagonist, David Norris (Matt Damon).

David is a youngish congressman running for the New York senate seat. Though he’s young and charming, and seems to be a lock for the election, his campaign falls apart at the last moment. In the midst of working on his concession speech, he bumps into a radiant woman, Elise (Emily Blunt). They hit it off immediately, like they’ve known each other their whole lives, and they connect in a way, we learn later, that they’ve never connected with anyone else before. But then the shadowy chaps in hats swoop down and start doing everything in their substantial power to keep them apart.When one of these mysterious types (Anthony Mackie) is meant to delay David on his way to work, but doesn’t, David and Elise not only connect but seem to be on the path that, whilst predictable, is no less enjoyable for it (chat, drink, fuck, bliss etc). When David gets to work, he doesn’t yet notice that everyone there seems to be frozen until it’s way too late.

Before he starts running (and there is a lot of running in this flick), he sees strange guys in strange costumes doing stuff to motionless people’s head. As he runs, a particular white haired goon (John Slattery, best known for playing Roger Sterling on Mad Men), seems to pop out of doors in front of David no matter where he is impossibly.

And then there’s the grand revelation. This will be a feat of genius just avoiding the ginormous spoilers inherent in treading these waters, but here goes. At the very least, I can say David becomes clued in to the great clockwork scheme of the universe, that there is a design and a plan behind it all, but that the plan does not include himself and Elise ever getting together. Plus, if he ever tells anyone about the existence of this complex array of ‘adjusters’ adjusting everything, then they’ll wipe his mind.

Three years later, despite the best efforts of these hat-wearing adjusters, who can do everything from making telephones not work to making cars crash on demand, David and Elise re-connect. David, instead of becoming an out-and-out loon carrying a poorly scrawled sign which he holds aloft as he yells on a street corner about how the Jews and the mental health profession are conspiring against him through the fluoride in the water supply, manages to chug along well enough in life. But the gaping abyss inside his heart can only find surcease through pursuing Elise regardless of the fact that he knows, outright knows, that the Universe itself is conspiring against them.

Free will? We don’t have it, apparently, we being humans and dolphins (at a guess, fuck those dopey dogs, cats and whales). The Powers That Be allowed us ‘free will’ for a while at the peak of the Roman Empire, and then five centuries of darkness ensued. They wanted to show us elements of how the Plan worked, so they gave us the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and when they took the training wheels off again, we produced the World Wars and the Cold War.

So this bunch of hat-wearers decided we’re too fucking stupid and irrational to deserve free will. They keep humanity chugging along to protect us and the planet from ourselves according to a Plan which these beings can see (parts of) on their quaint looking iPads. They can track us on them as well, seeing how our choices or movements converge or diverge with the Plan. Fate would be another word for it.

I guess that makes them agents of fate. They seem nice enough, but because David refuses to bow down before the grandness of their Plan, they bring in The Hammer (Terence Stamp), who is even better at forcing people back into line than the other generic be-hatted chumps guys.

The thing about love, though, is that all the forces of the universe, parental disapproval, age disparities, restraining orders, threatening and murderous husbands or junkie boyfriends, and scathing harpy friends, and even complete disinterest on the part of the object of one’s affections, all of these cannot deter the obsessed person in love, whether they’re just really really really in love, like David, or just a crazed and deluded stalker who shoots a president because he thinks that will make Jodi Foster love him.

It’s a fine line. I couldn’t forget about how one person’s romance looks like another person’s insanity, but I of course respond the way the players involved wanted us to react: no-one likes being told they can’t love who they want to love. No-one likes being given unsolicited advice, or being told they’re going to fail, or they shouldn’t do what they feel they have to. In this case, of course, we’re supposed to support the character who’s going against the grain, fighting the good fight for the rest of us, ignoring what is obvious to others because of the truth he carries in his heart. And we applaud him for it. But how many emotional vampires and well-meaning idiots do you know in your own life who do exactly the same kind of thing, ignoring good advice and fucking up everything around themselves like the leaking radiation from a Japanese reactor?

Yeah, I know I’m taking it too seriously. This overstates the argument a bit, too. The film, for all its philosophical / existential kernel of meaning in its hard centre, is a fairly light and breezy affair. The real main character is the city of New York, which is show-cased in such a way that you’d almost think there’s some kind of ad campaign money from some travel department trying to ensure people watching the flick will think: Hey, New York would be a great place to visit.

Seriously, a main part of the flick involves people, mostly the guys in hats, but David and Elise at one point too, travelling through doors that follow an arcane mystical map, meaning if he or they go through the ‘right’ door after turning the doorknob in a particular direction, they’ll go from the Museum of Modern Art to the foot of the Statue of Liberty, and back to Yankee Stadium in the blink of an eye. I loved this threshold / gateway effect, and it’s the only visual manifestation that something’s going skewiff with reality. The Adjustment Bureau is unfairly going to look like an Inception ripoff, but it’s a far simpler and far more enjoyable (and far shorter) movie, for my money. It has a fairly middle-brow premise with only the lightest of sci-fi / fantasy trappings, but doesn’t devolve into an action slugfest unnecessarily.

There’s also a fairly interesting depiction of the shenanigans of contemporary politics with its emphasis on focus group testing of phrases and presentation, which comes up most emphatically in David’s concession speech, where he outlines the level to which even his ties are selected by focus groups, and the level of scuffing his shoes require to avoid alienating working class shlubs or white collar criminals. It’s most interesting to me because it’s a meshing of the character as depicted in the flick with Damon’s own prominence in the political / media landscape, meaning he’s got the juice to get cameos from Jon Stewart, Mayor Michael Bloomberg or even shmucks like James Carville. Then again, now that I think about it, all these people are notorious media sluts who jump at the chance to flatter their own egos playing themselves.

The acting is uniformly excellent, no-one overacts one bit, and although Emily Blunt is wonderful (to look at as, as well as listen to), I wish she had a bit more to do than dance around or run. Her scenes with Damon are pretty charming, and despite the surreal premise, she nails those scenes with Damon, which are crucial to the story hanging together.

I enjoyed it, I really did. It’s probably the best flick I’ve scene thus far in 2011 (that’s been released in 2011, because the best flick I’ve seen this year is still the heartbreaking Never Let Me Go, but that was from the year before). I enjoyed it a lot. It’s a strong blend of the cerebral and the emotional, but it’s not pretentious about it or self-important. And it makes New York and Emily Blunt look like visions from a higher, finer plan of reality.

8 times maybe it was also an unsubtle argument for public transport out of 10

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“All I have are the choices I make, and I choose her, come what may.” – all any of us ever have is our choices, no matter how stupid they may be – The Adjustment Bureau.

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