Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 05, 2011 2:57 pm 
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Beware of men in hats

The Adjustment Bureau is one of those many movies Hollywood has delivered in which certain characters know what's going to happen to certain other characters and do their best to change things around, with mixed results. There are not very many characters we have to be aware of. Mainly, there's Emily Blount and Matt Damon. They are mere mortals, though talented ones: she heads an innovative dance company and he is a politician likely to rise not only from congressman to senator, but with the presidency a likely prospect down the line. He's young yet.

Then come the adjusters, or fixers, or angels -- though most of them are not very nice at all. The issue hovering over the film is the old one of free will vs. determinism. The adjusters' job is to see that things follow a predetermined course decided on high. It seems blips occur every now and then down below in New York, and these fellows (it's a man's job, primarily a fedora-wearer's job) are in charge of nudging people back in line. They carry around little electronic notebooks, like iPads but with real pages and moving diagrams in them showing -- what? The trajectory of a person's life? Or his path across the Borough of Manhattan? It's not clear which. Maybe both, or either, depending on the urgency or grandeur of the moment. Emily and Matt are star-crossed lovers, and the adjusters are the ones who do the crossing.

This story bears some resemblance to Christopher Nolan's Inception, only it's quite a bit simpler. Instead of going in and out of people's dreams, the adjusters go through doors, and their fedoras (or any kinds of hat, really, even a yarmulke) act as magical keys, permitting Adjustment Bureau members to appear and disappear through mysterious portals and avoid detection by ordinary mortals while they push people in one direction or another. The Bureau has many members, presumably, but we only get to know a few of them. There's John Slattery of "Mad Men," dressed just as nattily as on TV, including the fedora, but forced to get along without cocktails and cigarettes. Above him at a higher level is Terence Stamp, and above him Stamp's boss is somebody we don't really know, who in turn has a boss we never even see.

At the outset Matt Damon's character is way ahead in the race for senator from New York. But he's young, and comes from a rough area, and the night he was first elected to Congress he got in a tavern brawl. Now he loses, when a video emerges just before the election showing him mooning his college classmates. It seems that on top of the more recent bar brawl the news of this earlier indiscretion is too much. He's not only young; he's unpredictable and immature. But was this video the adjusters' work? And since they seem to want him to become president, why derail his senate bid? It's not explained. Anyway just before his concession speech -- whose honesty about the tie and shoes he wears is enough to get him elected in a few more years (go figure) -- he meets Emily Blount for the first time in the Waldorf men's room. It's love at first sight.

For some reason, and they themselves don't know what that reason is, the adjusters are bent on keeping Emily and Matt apart. And still Matt, who has never felt like this, goes chasing around looking for Emily -- except for a three-year period when he believes what Terrence Stamp has told him about why it's not a good idea for him and Emily to be together. But there is Anthony Mackie, a more kind-hearted adjuster who feels sorry for Emily and Matt when he sees how much they want to be together and wants to do something about it. He and Matt team up and Mackie lends Matt his fedora (see photo).

Inception was hands-down the most over-hyped film of the year. But it was beautiful and ridiculously convoluted, and The Adjustment Bureau makes both these qualities in retrospect seem like virtues. This new film is relatively generic-looking, and all too easy to figure out. It's defenders say it is "most of all a love story." It is love story with an admix of hokum (instead of ordinary twists of fate) making the lovers' path uncertain.

In a decisive little speech, George Nolfi's equivalent of Orson Welles' famous "cuckoo clock" improv in The Third Man, Terence Stamp tells Matt the human race was allowed free will for a while, but the "Dark Ages" resulted. So the Bureau took over, and the Renaissance resulted. Then they let humans take over, and we got World Wars I and II, so they took over again, and that's where things stand now. I did not find this explanation very satisfying. What about global warming, world hunger? Have the adjusters got those all under control?

In a way this is a chase movie and it is nice to observe that this time the chases -- though they go through doors into warehouses and out of doors into athletic stadiums and finally from a door onto a parapet at the feet of the Statue of Liberty -- take place, for a change, almost entirely on foot. There's a car crash, and there are bus rides, and one of the adjusters gets hit by a car, but there are no car chases. No freeways; no Mini Coopers rolling down stairways. No facades of whole cities disintegrate digitally either. You could say George Nolfi keeps it simple.

So simple, however, that The Adjustment Bureau is dry and bloodless and devoid of life. People run -- both around town, and for public office. Emily is a modern dancer, and she gets Matt to go dancing in a disco once, against his better judgment. People do not live in houses or apartments. They do not eat food. They do not sleep. They do not have sex. They do not go to the bathroom, except at the Waldorf, and then only to meet the man of their dreams while he is rehearsing a speech. This is a movie that's preposterous without being interesting. It lacks the everyday things that make life fun. Emily and Matt do their best to inject energy into their scenes but they're not together in real situations.

George Nolfi, who debuts as a director here, did some of the writing for The Bourne Ultimatum and more of it for Ocean's Twelve. The idea came from Philip K. Dick. Though the movie departs considerably from Dick's original short story, "The Adjustment Team," it remains material for a short story, and its expansion into a $51 million feature film is not very satisfying.

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