Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 6th, 2011

Adjusting The Adjustment Bureau

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Last week, my wife and I rented The Adjustment Bureau, a movie that, aside from its clunky title, seems to have a lot going for it: a cast that includes Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, and the great John Slattery; a talented screenwriter, George Nolfi, in his directorial debut; and a nifty premise, courtesy of Philip K. Dick. Apparently there’s a team of supernatural adjusters, taking the form of sinister men in hats, whose job is to make sure that the world proceeds according to “the plan,” as defined by an unseen Chairman. The adjusters make whatever changes are necessary to keep our lives on track, but encounter an unexpected problem when David Norris, a congressman running for Senate, accidentally falls in love with Elise Sellas, a dancer in New York, threatening to put both of their lives—and the future of the world, obviously—off course.

The resulting movie is reasonably enjoyable, but content to coast on the level of light fantasy, and in retrospect, it’s hard not to lament all the wasted potential. The questions the film implies but never answers are endless: Is there another adjustment bureau above the one we’ve seen, and so on ad infinitum? Can adjusters abuse the system to their own ends? Does a second team of adjusters work for Satan? Is it possible for a man like David to cleverly game the system? Why doesn’t David blame the adjustment bureau for the deaths of everyone in his family, which the bureau could have prevented? We’re told that the adjusters have trouble dealing with bodies of water—does this mean that we have more free will on boats, or small islands? Was 9/11 part of the plan? And why does the poster and tagline for The Adjustment Bureau look so much like the one for Michael Clayton?

These may seem like nitpicky questions, but part of the pleasure of speculative fiction comes from the author’s exploration of the implications of his premise. A movie like Being John Malkovich isn’t content just to show us a portal into a famous actor’s brain—it also asks what would happen if Malkovich entered his own portal, or tried to push invaders down into his subconscious. Inception didn’t just give us its characters entering a dream, or a dream within a dream, but five levels of dreams, and cheerfully exploited the paradoxes of time dilation and our notions of dreams vs. reality. And perhaps most relevantly, Minority Report, also a mainstream action movie based on a story by Philip K. Dick, began by telling us the rules of precrime, then showed us how a smart individual could subvert the system, resulting in a surprisingly satisfying mystery. These films began with a great premise and drilled deeper, while The Adjustment Bureau is content to skate along the surface.

Part of the problem is that with the film’s biggest star playing David, the movie naturally gravitates toward the love story, which is much less compelling than the workings of the bureau itself. (If Damon had signed on to play one of the adjusters instead, we might have gotten a much more intriguing film.) As it stands, the central story could have been a great first act for a more ambitious movie, but taken on its own, it’s a little thin, and also thematically unsatisfying. The Adjustment Bureau knows that it needs a hero with a grand destiny that will go unfulfilled if he doesn’t agree to the plan, so it turns David into a future President of the United States. Fine—a movie doesn’t need to be subtle. But in the process, it reduces Elise to a character who is defined entirely by the impact she has on her more important male counterpart’s life. It would have been more interesting, perhaps, to get to the end and discover that Elise, not David, was the one whose life was truly important to the balance of the universe. But that’s more ingenuity, alas, than The Adjustment Bureau seems willing to expend.

Written by nevalalee

September 6, 2011 at 8:54 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

September 6, 2011 at 7:18 am

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