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Movies & TV

Adjusting the Adjustment Bureau

When a movie could have been good, but wasn’t, it becomes an even worse movie experience than if there had been no expectation, no potential, for anything better.  So it was with The Adjustment Bureau.  This movie was like 30 Days of Night:  it had everything going for it—unique premise, great cast, decent if not brilliant filming, and a budget to support any necessary effects—and yet it somehow managed to squander them all and create a bad movie made worse by the simple fact that it shouldn’t have been.

Before I go any further, let me state clearly:  this is not a review for those who wish to avoid spoilers.  This is a deconstruction of the movie in its entirety.

Now that we’re clear on that, let me explain what I liked about the premise.  The titular Adjustment Bureau is a supernatural agency that monitors humans lives and adjusts them when someone starts to go off plan.  Something as simple as bumping into you on the street, causing you to drop your back or spill coffee and miss that particular bus and therefore miss meeting someone on it, or cause you to meet someone on the next bus that you wouldn’t have taken except for that delay, or that accident you would or wouldn’t have been in, etc., etc.  Aside from the idea of shadowy supernatural agency secretly running lives of even the most inconsequential of people, it’s a fascinating study in “what if” that we’ve all probably considered at one time or another…that butterfly effect of did it really matter whether I wore the yellow dress or the green one?—maybe.  I’ll never know, but the adjustment bureau might.  This really is a line of pondering that I’ve had with myself, many times over, and as a philosophical exercise I quite enjoy it.  No issue yet.  Then it upped the ante by giving us a character (Matt Damon) who found out about the agency by accident and who therefore has to contend with them directly when he starts to go against the plan.  He met a woman (Emily Blunt) who changed his life, and when he saw her again by chance, because she was not part of his plan, because he was “never supposed to see her again,” the agents try everything they can to keep them apart.

Still so far so good.  There were plot holes at this point in the movie, but I was withholding judgment because the rest of it was good, and sometimes they get explained.  Until the Explainer came in, and that was where the movie went to shit for me.

This guy—Thompson I think was the name—was supposedly the most ruthless agent, the “hammer” on forbidden loves, and he delivered the most asinine lecture about why the adjustment bureau was so necessary, its work so vital that David would be convinced to give up Elise just by hearing of their Great Work.  The sort of forced “let me step in and explain everything” aspect was simply clumsy scripting, but the actual discussion was so much worse.  It was cherry-picking from the history of Western civilization in this self-loathing angst about how horrible humanity is and how the one time the adjustment bureau let us go on our own it created the Dark Ages.  This completely ignores the rest of the world (and isn’t that the heart of the multiculturalism fueling self-hatred of the West?), and the current research questioning whether the Dark Ages were as stagnant and regressive as we’ve been told for so many years now.  The ignorance of that speech just killed the movie for me.  I’d rather have been left with the plot holes that I had to fill in or explain or just choose to ignore.  It really was on the PG-13, as in catering to 15-year-olds level.  For true.  I have read that exact same monologue in a YA vampire novel, and it’s about the level of non-profundity that might interest a very young reader but should make any adult roll their eyes.

Then we get one of the big turns in the movie–the plan can change.  Apparently in a lot of previous plans David and Elise were meant to be together.  I think this was a plot point that should have been left out entirely.  First, it devalues the attraction between David and Elise because it makes it seem manipulated in the first place, as part of the plan.  Second, the plan having changed once already sort of posits the question of what’s the big deal about changing it back?  It had already changed once, at least.  In fact from the number of plans in which David and Elise were together it sounded like the plan changed pretty fucking often—so why this one element that could not be changed back again?

The way Thompson went about separating David and Elise was especially exasperating to me.  He tried to bully David into it by having Elise fall wrong while dancing, which she would not have without that “adjustment,” and then he tells David that it wasn’t his future that would be lost if they stayed together, but hers.  And then all of a sudden David can’t bear to have that happen, so he leaves.  This.  Pissed.  Me.  Off.  It was just so high-handed of him, to assume he actually knew what she wanted most out of life.  He could have asked her what her dreams were, and decided after he’d asked—he could have said “theoretically we are together, and I’m a Senator, and my career needs you to give up yours and be a pattern card of the virtuous wife.  Could you be happy doing it?”  All he needed to say, it gives the adjustment team no reason to go erase his mind because he didn’t reveal them, and it allows her to have some say in her future.  Instead he simply chose, and he had no idea if he actually chose what she would have chosen for herself; he just chose what he thought she wanted.  That was not romantic or self-sacrificing; it was him making an assumption based on his own projections, including a projection of the guilt he would feel for taking one future away from her and replacing it with a different one.

All that was bad enough, but the end…oh, the end.  The end was so anticlimactic.  They have this long extended chase scene where they go in and out of different parts of New York (okay, being honest?  The chase was pretty cool) and finally end up in the bureau headquarters trying to talk to the Person In Charge.  The agents trap David and Elise, and they have what might be one last kiss and basically just say they’d rather have five minutes together than a lifetime apart, and that’s all it takes to convince the PIC to intervene and change the plan for them.  Seriously?  All those disruptions, those endless ripples that came from the agents manipulating other people’s plans to keep these to apart, and then, boom, they’re together now and it’s done?  Why not just change the plan in the first fucking place and not have all those other disruptions?  It was…illogical.

But that’s sort of the point.  It was a great idea that could have been a wonderful forbidden/impossible love story that was poignant and haunting or triumphant and powerful, depending on how it played out, but instead the package was given a nice tidy bow and a simplistic narrative that eroded the strength of the basic idea.  If you want to watch a movie about changing futures, Dark City is infinitely better, and if you want a movie about defying some manipulative entity, then The Forgotten (director’s cut ending) will also be more satisfying.  More than anything with this film, I’m frustrated that it came so close to being brilliant, but in the end could not deliver…and that’s even worse than a film that never approached brilliance at all, because at least with that movie I don’t have the additional sense of something lost.  With The Adjustment Bureau I feel keenly the loss of the next Code 46 or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

By Elena Nola

Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.