Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (Universal Pictures, Media Rights Capital, Gambit Pictures, Electric Shepherd, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Adjustment Bureau, a 2011 production based on a 1952 short story called “Adjustment Team” by Philip K. Dick — and though there’ve been the usual complaints from sci-fi fandom that the movie borrows little more than a central premise from Dick’s original tale, the film (the first co-produced by Electric Shepherd Productions, a holding company founded by Dick’s daughter to try to re-establish family control over his increasingly valuable literary legacy) turned out to be quite engaging and entertaining. The premise of this story is that human beings only think they have free will: everything that happens to us is rigidly controlled by a set of plans ultimately dictated by “The Chairman” (i.e., God?) and enforced by a team of fedora-hatted men in bad suits called “The Adjustment Bureau.” Though they don’t look exactly alike, they’re reminiscent in their emotion-less affect of the “Mr. Smiths” of The Matrices and their function is to catch anyone who deviates from the Plan and shove their lives back into conformance with it — and, if all else fails, to “reset” them: i.e., to erase their brains completely so they have no memory of simple functions and can’t remember what they were doing earlier.

In the original story the people targeted by the cosmic adjusters were an ordinary suburban couple, but producer-director-writer George Nolfi had more ambitious ideas than that: his Adjustment Bureau victims are U.S. Senate candidate David Norris (Matt Damon) and Cedar Lake company modern dancer/choreographer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt, with Acacia Schachte of the real Cedar Lake company as her dance double in the long shots). In the opening sequences — which are so media-realistic (down to real media people like Chuck Scarborough and Jon Stewart appearing as themselves) that for about the first 20 minutes or so it would be hard to guess this was a science-fiction story — Norris, a 32-year-old U.S. Senate candidate from New York in the 2006 election, has a double-digit lead until he blows it by “mooning” his old buddies at a college reunion; the New York Post obtains a photo and the scandal destroys him and his opponent comes from behind and scores a sweeping victory. (The opening is reminiscent of the election scandal in Citizen Kane, but it’s harder to believe a scandal like this — especially one that didn’t involve actual sex and whose central figure wasn’t married — would so totally destroy a candidate as it would in the time period of Kane. Then again, after David Weiner’s quick fall from grace, maybe it’s not so far-fetched after all.)

David’s politics are kept pretty ambiguous, though we know he’s a Democrat (because when his defeat is announced, the TV newscast shows his opponent’s name in white letters on a red field, and given how entrenched the Democrats = blue and Republicans = red dichotomy has become, that instantly signals that the winner is a Republican) and after the election (and after he gives a Bulworth-like concession speech exposing all the research and focus-group testing that stipulated such seemingly minor details as the color of his tie) he’s set to go to work for his former campaign consultant in an alternative-energy company. He also meets a mysterious woman in the men’s room of the hotel where he’s having his election-night “do,” and he’s instantly smitten but doesn’t know why. Then he meets her again, this time on the bus on his first day on his new job, and he spills coffee on her lap and manages to get her first name and phone number — only once he gets to the office he’s kidnapped by the Adjustment Bureau and forced to burn the card with her number because the Plan says they’re not supposed to be together.

Three years pass, during which — unbeknownst to him — she has an affair with her company’s lead choreographer and comes close to marrying him but draws back because she still remembers the hot young politician who looked just like Matt Damon, who made a pass at her but never called her again. Eventually it turns out that originally the Plan did call for David and Elise to get together, but it was revised — though enough hints of the original Plan remained in the Adjustment Bureau’s records that they kept getting pulled together despite the best efforts of the Bureau to keep them apart — and thanks to Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie), the Adjustment Bureau’s one Black member and the one who’s sympathetic to him, David manages to get hold of part of the plan. Unwilling to erase his mind but also frustrated at the way he and Elise keep getting together, the Adjustment Bureau calls in their boss, Thompson (Terence Stamp), who lays it out for David: the Plan calls for him to win the next U.S. Senate election in 2010 and go on to win two more Senate terms and then two terms as President — only if he and Elise get together none of that will happen and their union will sandbag her career plans: instead of a star dancer and choreographer she’ll end up “teaching dance to six-year-olds.” Thompson also explains that the Plan has controlled all of human history except for two interludes during which they decided to back off and let us make our own decisions — the first time they did that it led to the fall of the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages; the second time was from 1910 to 1962 and it led to the two world wars, the Holocaust, Communism and the near-annihilation of the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Producer/director/writer George Nolfi doesn’t even come close to capturing the hell-bent pacing of a Dick story, nor does he do much to explore the Faustian bargain Thompson is offering David — your girlfriend or the Presidency? — but within the limits of a modern action thriller The Adjustment Bureau is quite compelling, well structured (one reviewer compared it to Inception, but I think it’s a far better film than Inception because Nolfi sticks to the rules of his story and doesn’t arbitrarily take it in any direction that momentarily pleases him the way Christopher Nolan did), chilling not only in the whole notion that we only think we make our own history but in the sheer weight of the Adjustment Bureau’s powers (they can make cars crash into each other and, in one especially chilling scene, they have Elise fall during a dance performance and leave it up to David how serious her injury will be — when he agrees, at least for the time being, not to see her again it’s only a sprain rather than something more crippling that would end her career) and the Bureau’s indifference to the desires of the human beings they manipulate in search of a Plan they know very little about themselves because the Chairman doles out information about it on a need-to-know basis. It may be Dick Lite but it’s still a fun movie, even though the story logic does seem to get pretty warped towards the end in order to give the film a feel-good happy ending instead of the darker, nihilistic one I thought it was leading up to in which both David and Elise would have been “reset.”