Thursday, 26 January 2012

Do Not Adjust Your Bureau

0. Kochk Introduces

Before The Adjustment Bureau, Sky Movies showed a brief "Matt Damon introduces" piece in which Matt Damon came up with something to say about the film. Apart from saying it was fun to make, he suggests we watch Emily Blunt, as her performance is the most important thing in the film. Eventually I will circle back and review his introduction, but since I am the only person[1] in the world who is interested in it first I'll talk about the film. Will there be spoilers? Not if someone adjusts this piece first.

1. Your Destiny Is In The Script

Matt Damon's character, David Norris, is introduced in a montage of his political career, culminating in him losing a race to be Senator for the state of New York due to him playing a prank on his old college buddies. He meets a mysterious woman in the men's toilets which inspires him to go out and give the kind of concession speech (about paying consultants to advise on his wardrobe, focusing on his tie[2] and on the $7300 to advise on the amount of scuffing on his shoes) we all wish politicians would make. No, forget that, he gives the kind of speech they should make before they have to concede.

We skip to Norris' first day at work, and the sinister hat-wearing men of the titular adjustment bureau plan to make him spill his coffee on his shirt[3]. The agent assigned to do it falls asleep, so Norris catches the bus, meets the mysterious woman, gets her name (Elise) and number, then arrives early at work to discover the sinister hat-wearing men have frozen everyone and are busy changing the mind of his boss[4] with a mysterious device. There's some running and chasing[5], with people appearing where they shouldn't and the top floor office door leading into an underground garage where there's a bit of discussion why they can't just wipe his memory or something, and then they explain the premise of the film to him.

The premise is this: that everyone has a destiny and the job of the adjustment bureau is to make sure that chance doesn't take them away from that destiny. Norris and Elise[6] are not destined to be together. They take away and burn the number and threaten him with making him mad if he tries to tell anyone anything.

Because this film is squarely in the mainstream tradition of American cinema, Norris will Not Submit To Authority, especially because he is in True Love. So one man sets out to oppose a mind-and-space-twisting conspiracy of unknown size that can determine the results of your decisions before you make them.

2. True Love Conquers All

As I said, we're right in the middle of Hollywood filmmaking. So the question is not can Norris defeat this conspiracy and be reunited with his love, but instead how will he do it and, more importantly what will it cost him and who will he have to become?

Since he appears to have no life outside work, running for office and chasing the woman of his dreams who he met twice for about ten minutes in total, it seems that all he has to sacrifice is his dull, uninteresting life. Here's where Damon's assertion that the film is all about Blunt comes in. When she appears the film is transformed. Partly that's the filmmaking techniques, partly it's that she's easy on the eye and a good actress, but in part it's the way Damon's performance changes when he's with her. To say that he's dull without her exaggerates the situation, but his character becomes animated, interested, fascinated, and eventually driven. We believe that he will be the man to ride the same bus for three years on the off-chance that he will spot the same woman, and having found her will fight fate to be with her. Blunt's performance is vital to the film, but she's only on screen for half the running time, while Damon is in nearly every scene. We need Blunt's luminous presence, but without Damon's reflection it would be without context. So much for "Matt Damon Introduces".

3. My Destiny is My Own

The destinies of mankind, as it turns out, are set by the Chairman. Who the Chairman is remains a mystery[7]. The reason for the longlived adjustment bureau members taking control of history is eventually explained; twice before they've let human determine their own destiny; once during the Roman Empire, then again in 1910[8]. We humans promptly made a big mess of things.

The exact plan is never made explicit. We assume it is generally good (dark ages bad; WW1 and 2 bad; they change Norris' boss mind from being vaguely against funding the solar energy proposal to vaguely in favour), but most of what we're told is about things we don't see, future things that haven't happened yet and may not happen and from the adjustment bureau itself, an organisation with mysterious powers. Taking them at face value though, it seems that the plan is to make Norris president, and Elise a great dancer and choreographer. This, though, will only happen if they are apart.

A chance meeting between Norris and Elise spirals out of control, with the bureau trying to fix things. Firstly it seems that they will be confirmed off plan if they have a kiss "a proper kiss". An interruption transforms the kiss from a "proper" one into a "goodbye" kiss. Norris is then kept from her dance practice by accidents, traffic lights, a fake policeman[9]. Nevertheless he gets there and goes off plan after seeing her dance.

Thompson, the troubleshooter played by Terrance Stamp, then turns up and tells Norris exactly what the relationship between him and Elise will cost; her dance career. To make the point, she then slips and sprains her ankle. Norris leaves her.

Meanwhile we discover that the reason they are so drawn to each other is that in earlier versions of the plan they were meant to be together. So the reason Norris wants, and is able, to be with her is that they're destined to be with each other. The adjustment bureau is fighting it's own plans. Norris is rejecting one destiny determined by the adjustment bureau in favour of another destiny determined by the bureau.

4. Fight Fate with Fate

For no very good reason bureau member Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) decides to help Norris, explaining the hats (allowing the bureau to use doors as shortcuts) and giving him a chance to interrupt Elise's wedding[10]. On the run, Elise and Norris get into the adjustment bureau headquarters and try to see the Chairman. Then Mitchell reappears and tells them that the Chairman has seen what they've done, they've passed their test, they can make their own destiny now etc. etc.

I found the ending a little weak. Norris and Elise are willing to give up everything for their love, so the Chairman sends someone to say "Fair enough, good luck with that kids." Deus Ex Machina. Roll credits!

5. I Knew You Were Going To Write That

Like the film, I don't really have a conclusion. It's about free will and fate. There are doors that go where they shouldn't. There's a secret behind everyday life. The film has a lot of The Matrix in it's DNA, and that's not a bad thing. The bureau can't tell what's going on when water is about, which may be a metaphor for the way our lives flow and change, but can also be channelled, or it may just have been an excuse to film some gorgeous New York waterfronts and gloomy rainfilled streets. There's some great shots, especially when Norris, on the run, keeps heading through shortcut doors into more and more iconic and outrageous New York situations. Blunt and Damon do a great job of the love-at-first-sight scene, and then carry this through. It's a good film. It raises interesting questions and leaves some of them unanswered. The ending is a bit abrupt. That is all.

[1] Person in this case including the set of fictional internet enabled movie reviewing firearms.
[2] It looks like the kind of tie you'd end up with if you paid a consultant to pick out your wardrobe. It's almost as if there was a professional wardrobe person picking out the clothes in the film.
[3] Forget Galactus or Blofeld, this is the kind of villain I take personally.
[4] Who was his campaign manager and is also the closest thing to a friend Norris seems to have. It looks like it's some kind of investment bank.
[5] There's a lot of that in the film, almost as though they're trying to show that he's trying to outrun his fate.
[6] We don't find out Elise's surname for quite a while.
[7] This being based on a PKD story, then it's aliens, or God, or possibly aliens that are God.
[8] Here's an amusing game; pick two historical dates that spring to mind at random, then assume the adjustment bureau stopped controlling either just before or just after those events. Generally this is nearly as convincing as the dates given. Also, for a depressing game, play it several times.
[9] In a hat.
[10] I'm a sucker for a good interrupted wedding scene. This is not an interrupted wedding scene. Disappointing.