Thursday, August 04, 2011


Free will hunting


By Edward Copeland
When it opened earlier this year, The Adjustment Bureau didn't seem to make much noise so when I caught up with it on DVD I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, both in its execution and its intriguing premise, which originated in a Philip K. Dick short story.

Dick's novels and stories have inspired a lot of films since the first major adaptation, Blade Runner, made its way to the big screen. The results haven't always been great, but they've nearly all fallen generally within the sci-fi vein. The Adjustment Bureau, based on Dick's short story "The Adjustment Team," finds itself more concerned with ideas and its touches are less of the science fiction variety, leaning more toward the philosophical, otherworldly and, perhaps, even spiritual.

The Adjustment Bureau proves to be an impressive directing debut for screenwriter George Nolfi, who also adapted the short story and whose previous scripts include The Bourne Ultimatum, The Sentinel and Ocean's Twelve, but none of those films really prepared a viewer for what Nolfi is able to accomplish with The Adjustment Bureau.

As The Adjustment Bureau opens, nothing indicates that its story will be anything out of the realm of the ordinary. Matt Damon stars as U.S. Rep. David Norris, in the midst of a campaign seeking promotion to the Senate. Norris was the youngest person ever elected to the House, having been 24 on Election Day but turning the constitutionally required 25 before taking office. Though he'd always had a reputation for hard-partying college days (he even jokes with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show about it), a few new stories and allegations hit the press right before Election Day and Norris ends up losing the Senate race. In his concession speech, he actually talks to the voters with rare honesty about the games you have to play to make sure those contributions keep coming and the consultants you have to depend on to make sure your footwear has just the right amount of scuff so that the common voter relates to you. It's such a refreshing speech that he's only been unemployed for a few minutes before people are clamoring for him to run again in 2010.

After the speech, as Norris takes a breather and freshens himself up in the bathroom off the hotel ballroom, he's surprised when a beautiful woman (Emily Blunt) wanders into the men's facilities. She's embarrassed, recognizing who he is, and tells him she's hiding out from a wedding she crashed. As the unemployed politician and the young lady get flirtatious, before they know it they are making out — just in time for Norris' closest adviser Charlie (Michael Kelly) to wander in on them and the girl to hastily make her exit. David, though you'd think he'd be most upset over the loss of the election, is more annoyed that Charlie interrupted the encounter before he could learn the woman's name or how to contact her. Then again, perhaps Charlie wasn't sent in to interrupt the encounter by accident.

Flash forward several months. David, though still called Congressman by many on the streets of Manhattan though he's been out of office for quite some time and now holds down a "real job" at the same firm where Charlie works. Unbeknownst to Norris, he's being watched by men in hats, in this case Richardson and Harry (the always great John Slattery of Mad Men and Anthony Mackie). Richardson explains to Harry that it's up to him: He has to spill David's coffee on him at an exact time to keep the plan moving. What exactly is the plan? Who are these people? We aren't certain at this stage. All we know is that all hell breaks loose when Harry's spill doesn't happen and David makes it to his bus where he encounters once again the woman from the bathroom, only this time learning her name is Elise. Charlie even calls while they are on the bus together and David explodes with giddiness sharing the news of who he's rediscovered.

Unfortunately, these mystery men don't want David and Elise together and, even worse for these manipulators, David isn't delayed arriving to work so he witnesses strange men in suits as they tinker with the brains of his co-workers, including Charlie. David tries to make a break for it, but no matter what direction he runs, Richardson always awaits, trying to get Norris to slow down so he can explain who and what they are and what is going on. It seems there's a plan to the universe and because Harry failed to delay David's arrival to work, he's seen things that he shouldn't have. Richardson assures him that Charlie and the rest of his co-workers are fine, but if David ever mentions what he's seen to anyone, The Adjustment Bureau (the outfit they work for) will be forced to erase Norris' brain of everything that's ever happened to him. Also, he was never supposed to have seen Elise again so he takes her name and phone number from David and promptly burns it. Norris, needless to say, isn't happy with this turn of events because he hasn't felt this way toward anyone the way he feels toward Elise in a long time.

Once The Adjustment Bureau workers have left, he goes to Charlie's office, looking quite morose. Charlie asks what's wrong since he was so excited on the bus. Remembering the threat to his brain, David makes up a story about something happening that made him lose Elise's number. Norris, having been a politician and harboring thoughts about returning to the field some day, is an ambitious man and it's going to take more than the strange appearance of these people telling him that he and Elise aren't supposed to be together to stop him from trying to find her again. So, for the next two years he takes the same bus route he did the day he ran into her before on the off chance that they will meet again and sure enough, it works — he finds her again. At first, she wants nothing to do with him since he never bothered to call her, but he finally convinces her after he tells her that he got mugged later the day and lost her number and tells her the exact number of Elises in the Manhattan phone directory, none of which were her. Of course, it's the day he's set to announce his candidacy for the U.S. Senate so Charlie's frantic for his political life and Richardson and his team get rushed back on the case to try to muck up any romantic works. Norris finds himself so enthralled that he's willing to postpone the speech, but she talks him out of that and instead goes with him to it and agrees to have a meal with him before the speech and then she'll have to leave for rehearsal. It turns out she's a dancer. Throughout, Richardson's people try to throw road blocks in their path, but David and Elise keep missing them.

Once Norris' announcement has wrapped, much to Charlie's annoyance, David sprints to try to figure out where Elise rehearses so he starts randomly going into restaurants and other places to see if they've heard of the dance company and know where they are located. He gets a surprise by the appearance of the bureau's Harry, who tells him to meet him on a ferry. It turns out that not all the workers in the bureau are heartless bureaucrats so Harry wants to explain to David what he knows, but they have to do it over water. For some reason, water (or rain) interferes with their ability to track people. David asks Harry if they track everyone, but Harry says they don't have the manpower for that but the Chairman has a plan and they have to make sure the important ones stay on track. He doesn't know why they want to keep him and Elise apart, but it's part of the bigger picture. Anthony Mackie is quite good. In fact, he's always good and he's almost a chameleon. He's not an actor I recognize on sight, but when I go to look up who played a particular role, time and time again, it turns out that Mackie inhabited the character. I think it has to be the huge disparity in the roles he takes that makes this possible. I didn't recognize this sympathetic member of The Adjustment Bureau as being the only other character who stood out in The Hurt Locker besides Jeremy Renner or as the seductive drug dealer in Half Nelson trying to get the girl to be one of his runners.

It looks as if Norris has beaten the system. He and Elise fall blissfully in love and his Senate campaign hasn't had any problems. Back at "the office," Richardson discovers that they had been trying to enforce an old plan, so it wasn't really Harry's original screwup that caused this mess. Originally, David and Elise weren't supposed to be together, but at some point the plan was changed and a paperwork snafu didn't get forwarded to everyone who needed to know. Unfortunately, it has had a ripple effect forcing the Chairman to remove Richardson's team from the case and revert to the plan that prevents David and Elise from being together. For this, they bring in the big guns: Thompson aka "The Hammer" (the always good-to-see Terence Stamp). He starts simply, reinserting Elise's ex-fiancée by way of phone calls. Then he confronts David, explaining to him that her destiny of being one of the greatest dancers in history can't happen if she's with him. The appeal to his selflessness works, and David breaks up with her though it takes a toll on his campaign. He still stays way ahead in the polls, but he feels as if he's just going through the motions.

Finally, Harry hooks up with him again and tells David that the story about her dance career was a lie and he begins tutoring him on the trick on how they travel from place to place so quickly and how he can do so and escape detection. He does have another encounter with Thompson and he reveals what I feel is the story's most fascinating premise: There is no such thing as free will. Sure, he tells David, you can pick which toothpaste to use, but for the big stuff, the Chairman (presumably God or some sort of higher being) controls everything else. Thompson explains, "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, The Enlightenment, The Industrial Revolution. For 600 years we taught you to control your impulses with reason. Then in 1910, we stepped back. Within 50 years you'd brought us World War I, The Depression, fascism, the Holocaust and capped it off by bringing the entire planet to the brink of destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis. At that point, the decision was taken to step back in again before you did something that even we couldn't fix."

As I said at the beginning, I found The Adjustment Bureau to be a good movie with fine acting, writing and directing. As you'd expect, free will triumphs, but much in the way I always felt that Magneto had the right idea and was simply practicing self-defense watching the first two X-Men films, I'm on the side of the Chairman and The Adjustment Bureau here. After all the nonsense we just experienced in Washington over the debt ceiling, wouldn't we all sleep a little better if Congress didn't have free will and someone behind the curtain pulled the strings to prevent them from screwing things up all the time? True love be damned.

Regardless of which side The Adjustment Bureau comes out for, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

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I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this film and found myself getting caught up in the relationship between Damon and Blunt's characters. I think it helped that I had very low expectations going into the film. Always liked Damon and he shows that he has the capacity for a romantic lead in a film and the meet-cute scenes with Blunt are well-written and nicely realized by the two actors.
I also really enjoyed this movie. While not quite as good as say BLADE RUNNER or MINORITY REPORT, I still found it to be a very engaging, well-acted (especially by Damon and Blunt) and thoughtful work. The whole theme of "free will vs. predestination" has long been of particular interest to me and while I think the film is ultimately inconsistent (as, I find, are all films that deal with this subject), I like some of the questions it raises and the way in which it raises them. When the always watchable Terence Stamp makes his little speech about how we are unable to exercise our freedom with any kind of restraint or moral responsibility ("You don't have free will, only the appearance of free will.") because we are unable to transcend our own basic fundamental selfish and destructive natures, I found that to be one of the most profound and illuminating statements I've heard in a movie in a long time.
Really nice movie!Surprisingly! "You don't have free will, only the appearance of free will." Super!
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