Richardson: "We never should'a let him meet her in the first place!"
(no, no you shouldn't...)
With no former knowledge of the story, The Adjustment Bureau sounded like it would be about a secret group of people who silently encouraged individuals into subtly changing their behaviour, in order to control them, and/or society. Of course, there would also be a lead character who would flummox their expectations - it's a story. I love all that examination of free will, along with its limitations, and boundless freedom. Really - your free will is almost as free as your imagination, arguably more so.
The trouble was, three seconds later I realised that this was also going to be a modern film. As such I expected it would therefore be riddled with bad plotting and pretentiousness - a cocktail that would be deadly to my enjoyment of it.
You know what? I'd sat through so many smug but poorly plotted productions of late, that I actually gave up there and then and avoided this film. Yes, I had reached the point of failing to give it the benefit of the doubt. There are just that few properly plotted films made these days. Now who sounded smug?
Well, pal Herschel wasn't letting me off that easily. This year he said that I just had to watch his DVD of it. I refused, and explained my motivation. However a few weeks later I emailed him and said I'd changed my mind. He asked why. I explained that my reasoning had been more of a statement about my own cynicism than about the film itself. I wanted to be better than that. In retrospect, at that moment he must have felt like he was now in this film...
If you'll permit me to continue my swaggering, the movie The Adjustment Bureau duly turned out to be exactly what I had cynically expected.
In the case of the film's subject matter, that either makes the title too much of a giveaway, or a very clever suggestion indeed.
In the case of the plot, and its condescendingly low opinion of its own audience's intelligence, it's something of a disaster.
So, did I like it or hate it? I'll tell you at the end. Maybe I felt another way entirely and have since changed my mind...
First up, it's yet another film about a politician. I remain surprised that a profession so globally associated with corruption still makes such a popular choice for lead good guys in Hollywood movies.
So after suddenly losing an election that he had been ahead in the polls to win, US Senate runner-up David Norris (Matt Damon) very briefly encounters a girl called Elise who inspires him to then give the concession speech of his life. Elise is played by the English Emily Blunt, portraying a New Yorker with the sort of English accent usually reserved for Americans in Hollywood movies. Even she doesn't seem that sure about where she's supposed to be from, having apparently grown up in his neighbourhood, despite her protest that her accent implies she comes from somewhere quite different.
Initially she's not certain who David is, although it becomes clear that she actually knows a heck of a lot more about him than that, and has even been following his campaign.
A month later David bumps into her a second time on the bus. While their first meeting is subsequently revealed to have been set up, this one is pure chance. Having racked up maybe seven whole minutes of conversation with her in his entire life, David very quickly falls for her. In movieland this is quite common, but for David and Elise something else is behind it.
Anyway, their love at both first and second sight turns out to be a complete downer when David is then captured by a group of men in fedoras who tie him up and explain to him that she's not in their plan for his life. No, they want him to become US president instead. They really should have picked someone easier to control. It's not as if there is any great shortage of volunteers out there.
Up until this point this film's had all the appearance and tone of a political thriller, however once these science fiction shadows show up, it's here that the whole thing switches genre and begins to slowly collapse.
Said mystery men have frozen all the people in David's office building, or at least a part of it, but somehow no-one in the overlap with outside notices. (CCTV company, people in the middle of phone calls, others entering etc.) With their powers of persuasion I think that's plausable enough though.
David gets chased around the inside of the building by Richardson, a man with telekinetic power, and the ability to constantly appear just around the next corner from him. Later this is revealed to be possible by using doorways that can teleport Richardson and his colleagues from one place in the city to another to save time. However there is little point in setting them up to transport a person about within the close proximity of the same building, so I suppose he must be using another method. (indeed in the final act, they don't have these doors installed about their huge HQ)
I would like to suppose that said doors' shortcuts are controlled telepathically, but later scenes establish that their teleportation properties are fixed. Well, we'd best just forget about those then. Richardson's colleague Mitchell certainly does when he chases David's bus for several blocks, instead of using said doors to go after him. D'oh.
Across the film, clerics Richardson, Mitchell and Thompson reveal to David how their non-human organisation has been silently manipulating mankind, on and off, for millennia, mainly through deliberately influencing everyday moments. Eg. they engineered David's first meeting with Elise a month ago to inspire him to give such a successful speech. Their unseen boss, who controls the plan, is called 'the Chairman'.
Thompson: "You don't have free will, David. You have the appearance of free will."
David Norris: "You expect me to believe that. I make decisions everyday."
Thompson: "You have free will over which toothpaste you use, or which beverage to order at lunch. But humanity just isn't mature enough to control the important things."
Not great examples. When we go to the shop, hardly any of us makes a choice about which toothpaste we are going to buy - we almost always get the same one. Like our range of best beverages, I think most people use the same brand of toothpaste all their life, maybe choosing it once, if at all. I admit that I myself select a different brand of toothpaste almost every time I buy it, but I concede that that's uncommon. For most of us, there is just no choice taking place there. Likewise, just how broad is your shortlist of lunchtime beverages? (I'm glad he didn't cite picking a movie to go see)
The script contains several such well-intentioned speeches about the nature of free will, but without apparently having really given it much thought, which is what really lets the film down. Great concept, shallow exploration.
David Norris: "Whatever happened to free will?"
Thompson: "We actually tried free will before. After taking you from hunting and gathering to the height of the Roman empire, we stepped back to see how you'd do on your own. You gave us the dark ages for five centuries until finally we decided we should come back in. The Chairman thought that maybe we just needed to do a better job with teaching you how to ride a bike before taking the training wheels off again. So we gave you raised hopes, enlightment, scientific revolution. For six hundred years we taught you to control your impulses with reason. Then in 1910, we stepped back. Within fifty years you'd brought us world war one, the depression, fascism, the holocaust and capped it off by bringing the entire planet to the brink of destruction in the Cuba missile crisis. At that point the decision was taken to step back in again before you did something that even we couldn't fix."
Wow, what a very western history of the world. Mind you, I'm glad that Cherbnobyll didn't happen in this reality, nor 911, nor all the ongoing famine and wars in Africa...
My problem here is that for a story that claims such a big worldview, throughout the script itself demonstrates such a narrow one. There's not going to be much mind-blowing going on in a film with such blinkered vision.
Anyway, over the coming years, David finds himself engaged in an absorbing battle of wits against Richardson and his men, and here the script betrays its own rules once again. Having established that Richardson operates by trying to manipulate people into choosing his bidding, his abilities get ahead of himself.
For example, at one point he orders an inbound telephone call to make a phone ring... but it happens instantly. The only way Richardson can do that is if he also has the ability to travel back in time by a few minutes to manipulate the person into making the call. (there's a real person ringing) Even if he has already set up the call and has another operative standing by to cause it when he gives the order, it will still take another moment.
After this event, Richardson successfully pulls the same stunt a second time when someone sends a text message, despite not having had time to compose and type it, let alone press send.
And how on Earth are they supposed to have convinced the guy driving that car to smash it straight into the taxi David is flagging down?
They also seem to have the ability to predict the immediate future, which means that to fight them David needs to think on his feet. Literally - any plan he devises is not going to work. This sort of strategy makes things very interesting.
When threatening David the alleged future president with lobotomisation doesn't work, entirely because they then don't try to lobotomise him, the evil Thompson takes over from Richardson and sprains Elise's ankle (again not sure how he literally pulled that one - it doesn't look like telekinesis again). Thompson then blackmails David, offering to either ruin Elise's dancing career if he sees her again, or fulfill her dreams if he doesn't.
Heartbroken, David unwittingly becomes his enemy by magnanimously choosing the latter destiny for her.
However eleven months later, on the day before Elise's wedding to the guy who she is 'supposed' to marry, he changes his mind. Not that there's any chance of our getting behind his plan to win her back, because we have already seen how easily he can be talked out of it again - with the same blackmail offer as the first time.
Anyway, David gets assistance from the ever-helpful Mitchell in how to co-opt the Bureau's secret doors to traverse the city (you have to be wearing one of their special hats). He successfully gatecrashes Elise's wedding and makes off with her across New York, pursued by Thompson and his men. Hitting upon turning the door handles in the opposite direction (every door in this film seems to have a circular handle rather than, say, a lever one), the two star-crossed lovers breach the secret world of the Bureau. It's not clear whether this is in another dimension, or simply a shortcut to a big office building across town, but I'm in favour of the latter.
David's plan has all the awesome scope that it should have in this final reel - to find the all-powerful Chairman who determines everyone's fates, and change their own. Such a showdown (David and Elise vs. God) is indeed an exciting prospect, let down by just two problems in its execution:
1. No matter how deep David and Elise run into the complex, Thompson and his men remain perpetually somewhere behind them. No clever appearing ahead of them at every turn like Richardson had an hour earlier in the film. No telekinetic abilities now either. Spraining her (or his) ankle again isn't on anyone's arsenal of options.
2. Just as they are on the brink of finding this all-powerful guy, the film runs out of sets, actors and budget, and the whole story pulls up to a sudden stop. Suddenly Mitchell is walking up to them with a memo, and explaining that the big guy has just changed his mind and decided to let them off. Yes, the film's conclusion really is as easy as that. Oh. Hooray. I think.
Well no hang on a minute, so the entire world still remains in the vice-like grip of this oppressive regime for ever? Yes. Great ending. What happened there - did the real Bureau finally catch up with the moviemakers?!?
And yet, for all the shortcomings of this film's story, the fact remains that, throughout, The Adjustment Bureau has one key ingredient really going for it.
However you might not guage that from the mature-looking DVD cover above, which suggests a gritty, dark conspiracy with the pure evil of men's hearts at its centre.
Nah, this piece of popcorn is brightly lit.
There's also a pseudo-religious layer conjuring with how God and his angels might be nurturing mankind - and indeed individuals - towards restoration. Fortunately the script is smart enough to be boldly up front about this, but without pushing it too much either.
And the characters - they are all, without exception, quite likeable. Even the bad guys, who from quite early on we get to see facing their own light-hearted problems back in their own environment. You could even wish that you were one of them.
Well, you might wish that you were one of them, but for the fact that they are all male. The reason why this might be a downer is because, aside from the odd extra, in the whole of New York City there is apparently only one woman. Well, no wonder they all want to stop her going out with David. From the other perspective, Elise's fears that David may abandon her for someone else are entirely unjustifiable.
These two leads do deserve a special mention too. In seeking to establish a romance on screen in such a short space of time, I don't think I've ever seen such a rapport happen so instantaneously. These two don't leap straight into heavy talk about their feelings - they just start joking with each other from the off. The story's justification for their chemistry - that they were meant to be together in several earlier plans for history that were ultimately abandoned - is a great one too. They can't help but feel compelled to love each other, even though the future has no place for them now. What a shame the author didn't learn a lesson themself about the pitfalls of rewriting...
Also the ingredients of this film are the sort of everyday things that you might find in Harry Potter or Doctor Who - for example having to wear the right hat and turn the right door handle in the right direction to get to where you want to be. How cool would it be to be able to do that? Why there's a door right behind me as I type this. Is there one where you are? Where might that take you if you put on one of those hats?
In fact, for me the fun level eclipses the shaky plot. I really enjoyed watching the whole of this film. Well, most of it. What was that completely unnecessary swearing and lone sex scene doing in the middle? Without those, this would easily have got a PG certificate, found a much wider audience, and sparked off a kids' comic, a toy hat line, and an entire series of TV cartoons. What were the filmmakers thinking?
There's only one possible explanation - they were indeed got to by the Bureau.
I should know. Apparently I also was.
7.5 out of 10.
(available here. Your choice. I hope.)
(with thanks to Herschel)