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Entries in Adjustment Bureau/The [2011] (1)

Sunday
Mar062011

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Bureau Crap

Unlike the folks at Universal Pictures, I'm going to level with you about what kind of movie The Adjustment Bureau is: a Chick Flick disguised as smart entertainment.  Don't be fooled by trailers painting this as a sci-fi thriller in which Matt Damon must outwit the sinister forces that control the universe.  No, it's a sappy love story involving a magic negro (look it up) and angels.

Damon stars as David Norris, a young New York congressman running for the U.S. Senate.  He's a maverick with a reputation for brawling and an infectious, earnest optimism (in other words, a fictional character).  On the eve of a sure-fire win, The New York Post runs a full-page picture of the candidate mooning some friends at a college reunion that costs him the election.

While rehearsing his concession speech in a men's room, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt), a sassy free-spirit who mocks his tie and makes out with him.  When David's campaign manager, Charlie (David Kelly), shows up to take him to the stage, Elise runs away without leaving so much as a last name or a phone number.  David abandons his clichéd speech and opens up to the crowd about the false, polished image politicians present in order to garner the most votes from the most demographics.  This, the film's single inspired, spontaneous moment, happens fifteen minutes in.

We meet the members of The Adjustment Bureau, an army of suit-and-hat-wearing cosmic accountants who ensure that everything proceeds according to the grand design of The Chairman.  They monitor everyone's life path via what appear to be GPS devices inside Moleskine sketchbooks.  One of the bureau's middle managers, Richardson (John Slattery), works with David's life-long custodian, Harry (Anthony Mackie) to make sure Elise winds up in that bathroom; so that she can unwittingly inspire him to change his speech; which will enable him to run for senate again in a few years, and, eventually, become President of the United States.

But, of course, there's a complication.  The next day, David is supposed to bump into Elise on a bus, thus creating a future where he's not POTUS.  Actually, he's not supposed to bump into her, but Harry falls asleep in the park, thus missing his chance to make David spill coffee on himself--which would've prompted him to return home to change his shirt and...you get the picture.

David witnesses Richardson's men reprogramming Charlie and his staff as part of the change-of-plan cleanup, and is whisked away to a parking garage.  Here, Richardson explains what the Bureau does and makes David promise that he will A) never tell anyone about them, and B) give up looking for Elise; considering that his refusal would result in complete identity erasure, David agrees and goes back to his life--through a door in the garage that opens up into Charlie's high-rise office.

David keeps the first part of his word, but spends the next eleven months riding the same bus in the hopes that he'll see Elise again.  Sure enough, he finds her, and they begin a relationship.  This doesn't sit well with Richardson, who calls in his superior, Thompson (Terrence Stamp), whose field reputation earned him the nickname "The Hammer".  All things considered, perhaps he should've been called "The Grumpy Feather":  Instead of going to truly epic measures to keep Elise and David apart (fatal car accident, natural disaster, terrorist attack), Thompson warns David several times to stay away, with an increasingly desperate "This-Time-I-Mean-It" quality that drains any sense of menace he was meant to convey.

This brings me to the first of my three big problems with The Adjustment Bureau.  Though not overtly stated, it's made clear that The Adjustment Bureau are angels and that The Chairman is God.  Consider everything you know about God (your degree of belief is immaterial), and ask yourself if the following makes any sense:

1.  There aren't enough angels to keep track of every person and every development, so sometimes matters are left to "chance".

2.  The angels' powers only work if they're wearing hats.

3.  The angels can only teleport through doorways by turning knobs clockwise.

4.  The Bureau leaves to "chance" the numerous occasions when Harry breaks ranks and meets David on a ferry or in a bar to explain how to elude the angels (they don't like water!) and how to change his destiny--thereby going against the omnipotent will of The Chairman.

If you're okay with all of the above, I congratulate you on having been so utterly entranced by the love story that you breezed past the cineplex-sized holes in the film's internal logic.

Speaking of the love story, my second issue with this movie is the lack of chemistry between Damon and Blunt.  Matt Damon is a charismatic actor, with enough charm to carry whole scenes by himself--which he does a lot here, considering Emily Blunt's positively dead portrayal.  She burst onto the scene a few years ago, playing the deliciously catty executive assistant in The Devil Wears Prada; in that film, her prim, British, nasal-y voice matched her supreme bitchiness.  In The Adjustment Bureau, that voice and attitude are meant to convey confidence, but end up selling her as a party girl with a chip on her shoulder.  Her flat delivery and heavy eyes contrast Damon's sparkle, and I didn't believe for a second that he would spend a year searching for her, much less sacrifice his career and mind to be with her.

Not to worry, though: apparently screenwriter/director George Nolfi decided she was a bit too abrasive as well, and gave her the typical mid-action-movie conversion where she softens for no reason; she spends the last fifteen minutes of the film running and whimpering as she and David evade Bureau agents by zipping in and out of doors (think of Monsters Inc.'s climax, without the creativity or excitement).

Finally, we have the magic negro issue.  Harry, David's guardian angel, is black. He's soulful and wise, and his only mission in life is to help David reach his goals--even if it means bending the rules a bit.  Kudos if you're having flashbacks to The Legend of Bagger Vance right now.  In that film, Will Smith played a phantom golf caddy whose mission was to help (gasp!) Matt Damon conquer his fears--or something like that; it was a long time ago, and it wasn't very good.

At the end of the movie, after David and Elise have been pursued all over New York by agents intent on wiping both their minds clean...

Sorry, two more questions:

1.  Again, why not freeze them in time, as they did with Charlie and a whole office building floor full of people?

2.  If they wipe Elise and David's minds clean, doesn't that negate the importance of David's presidency, too?

Okay, back to your regularly scheduled sentence, already in progress...

...Harry takes a meeting with The Chairman and, I guess, convinces him to re-write his plan so that David and Elise can be together.  And that's the end of the movie: our protagonists making out on a rooftop, with Black Clarence looking on in pride at having won his wings or something.

From the previews, The Adjustment Bureau looked to be sort of a re-telling of Dark City through the lens of Inception.  But the main thing this film lacks that the others have is a villain.  There are no sinister characters here for the protagonists to fear, or to even unnerve the audience.  Richardson, Harry, and, to an extent, Thompson are ineffectual bureaucrats who treat the cosmic spaghetti of human destiny with the same importance as choosing soy lattes over skim.

This lack of tension, coupled with the story's lack of internal logic, heralds this as a new kind of Chick Flick.  It's ingenious, in a way: Fooling guys into thinking they're going to see a bitchin' action thriller starring Matt "Jason Bourne" Damon, while delivering a saccharine, un-challenging relationship picture for their girlfriends.  Like every Jennifer Aniston or Katherine Heigl rom-com, no one has to sacrifice anything to find true love; no one really gets hurt (even in the movie's one "action scene", a car wreck, both drivers only get a little banged up), and the big issues are left to other people to figure out.

The Adjustment Bureau is neither interesting nor necessary, thrilling nor romantic.  It's a cruel joke played on an unsuspecting audience by studio executives looking to alter the path of cinema with a plan that makes no sense.