Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Some Adjustment Required


The Adjustment Bureau is a pretty darn good film that could have been a great one. It is, unapologetically, a romance, which is interesting in and of itself; a lot of genre movies have love stories, but they’re usually of the “Here’s where Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese fall in love to move the plot forward” style, a subplot used to provide motivation. Actually, even in The Terminator, the love story is both crucial and affecting, but it’s not what the story is about. The Adjustment Bureau is a love story first and foremost, and the supernatural trappings are secondary to that. It’s still an intelligent movie that addresses existential and religious issues, but it doesn’t do this in the context of an action-thriller, which is how we’ve been conditioned to expect all of our more thoughtful genre movies these days (and a lot of less thoughtful ones, as well).

Which seems to be bothering some critics, who complain about “lowered stakes” (despite the fact that the protagonist faces complete mental erasure) and the lack of a slam-bang action climax. But the movie chooses the structure and story beats of a romantic drama, and I don’t see any particular reason why this is a less valid way of addressing these ideas. In fact, I think that being able to frame Big Ideas in the context of a romance is one of the very best ways of grappling with them, cinematically, and even if the movie pulled this off intellectually it would be laudable. But it also manages to be a genuinely charming romance, thanks due to the terrific performances of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. Again, this is the kind of story where more idea-focused screenwriters and directors might touch on “romance” as an abstract idea only inasmuch as it serves the story (the Wachowski brothers spring to mind) so kudos to writer-director George Nolfi for giving us a screen couple who are a joy to watch, thereby letting us believe that a real love affair is at stake.

So why does it fall short? Simply put, Nolfi bobbles the themes a bit, and he does it in a way that’s endemic to a lot of Hollywood movies right now. When Damon’s character finally gets the full purpose and M.O. of the Bureau spelled out for him, by Terrence Stamp as the very creepy Senior Adjuster “Thompson”, it turns out to revolve around changing not just random events but people’s minds as well. The Adjusters “can’t alter people’s personality or their emotions”, but they can “change the way you make decisions.” This is their primary tool in keeping human history in order and making sure events unfold in a way that will be broadly beneficial to the human race.

This is problematic for a couple of reasons, the most obvious being: aren’t people’s emotions exactly the kind of thing that would be easiest to meddle with? Understand that the Adjusters don’t *just* tweak fate and probability, they actually get right inside people’s heads when they need to (in a creepy scene that, in retrospect, doesn’t really make sense). You’re telling me that these folks can physically alter people’s decision-making neurons, but can’t make them a little grouchier or more euphoric? There are humans who can do that with relative ease, for Pete’s sake, just by using the right phrasing or exposing people to certain imagery or smells. Also, pharmaceuticals.

Furthermore, we’re told that the Adjusters have been messing with Damon’s personality his whole life, by exposing him to traumas like the death of his family. And then there’s the central event that kicks off the story, Damon’s meeting with Blunt, which inspires him to give an off-the-cuff speech which in turn reignites his political career. We’re later told that Damon’s impulsiveness has been a continuing problem for the Adjuster’s Plan, but here we them using that impulsiveness to get him exactly where they want him.

The real issue, of course, is that Damon’s only meant to encounter Blunt once, then never see her again, but his love for her—combined with a screw-up on the part of the Adjuster assigned specifically to him (Anthony Mackie)—throws the Plan into disarray and puts Damon into conflict with the Bureau. So this is a Love Triumphs Over All story, and given the framework here, Nolfi clearly thought it was most logical to have the Adjusters represent the triumph of cold rationality and intellect, and for Damon’s struggle to represent the counteracting force of emotion.

But that doesn’t really work, thematically. Because Damon’s love for Blunt is just as clearly shown to be the product of chance, and to have been manipulated by the Adjusters. They even say, later on, that the reason the two of them feel so strongly about each other is that an earlier version of the Plan DID mean for the two of them to be together. So their love is just as inspired by the machinations of the Adjustors as anything else.

More than that, though, I don’t think Nolfi has defined “love” properly. I’m of the firm belief—in case it wasn’t obvious—that intellect runs deeper than emotion, and that, forced to choose, it would be better to make a decision based on rational judgment than on emotion. But I also think that’s kind of a false dichotomy, because emotion is a complex thing. Your moods and whims are ephemeral, transient, but there are other emotions, emotions that form the core of your being, and which arise out of your rational judgment (as well as other thought processes that are mysterious to most of us…which is probably a good thing). I may be in a bad mood today because it’s gloomy out or because I have a headache, but listening to some music or taking Aspirin will probably help with that. But when I think about, for instance, the Tea Party, I’m always going to get depressed and angry. When I think about the moon landing, I feel a sense of pride and inspiration. When I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I feel a sense of comfort and familiarity. These “emotions” are consistent, and go to the core of my being. As such, I don’t think you can describe them separately from my rational thought processes. And I like to think that the love I feel for the woman I saw this movie with is fundamental in exactly the same way.

I’m a little leery here, in that I come close to agreeing with a number of borderline sociopaths on this point (most notable the horrible, horrible Objectivists). My larger point is that you need this kind of “emotion” in your life, and it’s foolish to deny that they make up a core part of your being. If the Adjusters can meddle with your rational thought processes, they have the potential to violate your ability to love someone—it’s not about reason vs. emotion, it’s about how the external vagaries of chance affect your fundamental being—your soul, if you like. What would remain of you if everything in your life was different? If the people you’d learned from, the environment you’d grown up in, the events that had happened to you, were different? It’s a fascinating question, and one the movie doesn’t really address satisfactorily, opting ultimately to go for the comforting bromides we’re used to from Hollywood.

But it is sweet, and romantic, and it does raise these issues in the first place. So that’s something.

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