Monday, March 07, 2011

Sully Reviews: The Adjustment Bureau

I don’t do movie reviews on Sully’s Blog. At least I generally don’t, but this past weekend I went to see such a wretched mess of a film that I am honour-bound by the bloggers’ code to spread the word.

The Adjustment Bureau, hailed as “Bourne meets Inception” is one of the worst films I've seen recently. A more apt tagline would be “Like The Matrix, only shit” And if you’ll join me after the break for a spoiler-filled discussion, I’ll spare you the time and money it would take for you to find out for yourself.
I'll fight to change your fate and spare you from this film

The film starts off promisingly - picking up at the end of David Norris’ (Matt Damon) doomed campaign for United States Senate, we see him meeting a sexy lady in the men’s toilet just before his concession speech, inspiring him to go off-book and inspire the nation. Most of it is vaguely plausible, mostly because we’re never given a glimpse at the actual politics of the protagonist.

A few months later, we see Norris retired from the public eye and making his way to work. A non-threatening black man is instructed to make him spill his coffee before 7.05am. The non-threatening black man falls asleep and doesn’t accomplish his task. Norris meets the sexy bathroom lady on the bus to work and is happy.

When Norris arrives at work, everyone in the building is stuck in time, and his boss is being probed by weird men. When Norris expresses displeasure at this, the conceit of the movie is explained, and a plot black-hole opens up and sucks the entire affair into it.

How? Why?
The eponymous Adjustment Bureau is a supernatual, clandestine organisation that interferes in the everyday lives of human beings to steward them towards their true potential. These agents of fate have been referred to as ‘angels’, as the film’s dialogue affirms, but these guys are not the standard angel archetype - they are bored-looking men (all of them are men) who operate in plain sight, decked out in conspicuous 50s style suits with hats. Their task is to carry out the plan of ‘the chairman’, but to accomplish this they must battle through the red tape of their divine bureaucracy, and suffer arbitrary restrictions on their power.

The film attempts to evoke the same sense of general menace as The Matrix, in which any entity could be taken over by the sinister ‘Agents’ - the analogue in this film is driven home by an exhortation by the non-threatening black man that “Anyone with a hat could be one of us. A fedora, a yankees hat, even a yarmulke.” These magic hats are key to the peculiar method of securing omnipresence these entities possess - by rotating doorknobs anticlockwise, they tap into a subspace highway, and can instantly come out on a doorway somewhere else in New York (Yes, just New York. Apparently the New Yorkers are the chosen people). They can’t choose what doorway they’ll appear out of - they have to memorize which door leads where, which is about as arbitrary and inconvenient a method of locomotion as one can imagine. Oh, and water messes with their ability to track people. Rainwater. Seawater. Water in pipes. That stuff messes ‘em up. (What about the water in our bodies?)

The whole point of the film is that these would-be lovers are being conspired against by ‘fate’ itself, and we’re supposed to be rooting for them, but the thinking viewer will be too distracted by the incongruous elements, such as the burning question of why can the Adjustment Bureau freeze an entire office-block to conduct their activities, but require Matt Damon to be delayed by the incompetent token black guy?

What it comes down to is a lack of testicular fortitude. The film refuses to present the fate-agents as villainous, or even callous, as they represent an unspecified deity - yet it is still demanded that we feel suspense at the looming presence of what is essentially an incompetent government official.

The film fails in characterization. I don’t buy into the chemistry between the lead actors, and can’t see the future that Norris fights for, but I can forgive this oversight as fighting for free will is commendible. The motivations of the individual agents of the Bureau are never glimpsed. Non-threatening black guy is trying his best Spock impersonation, but his character’s betrayal of the divine plan is as likely to be caused by workplace disgruntlement as a belief in true-love (he even bemoans the lack of manpower of his supernatural employers in an early scene). Likewise, sexy-bathroom stall girl suffers several ultimate rejections (and throws away a significant commitment) and is always willing to give Norris another chance. Sure, the heart wants what it wants, but love can’t explain away bad storytelling in every instance.

The film fails at decent dialogue. When the ‘case’ is elevated to the ‘big guns’, a stodgy attempt is made at creating tension. “Thompson?” One rube asks incredulously. “When he operated in the field, they called him “The Hammer!” I was quaking in my boots - actually I was exchanging the fiftieth incredulous look that hour with my fellow moviegoer (Hi Ger!).

The Hammer disapproves of this review
After showing their prowess at inconveniencing the protagonist, the film kicks it up a gear. It’s a training montage. Matt Damon has a magic hat (the magic powers transfer to humans?), and we hear that once he goes through the first door “all hell will break loose”. All that build-up, and what happens? We get three minutes of Matt Damon running through magic doors, relatively unperturbed. A few shots of him having to knock hats off pursuers in clever ways would have been appreciated. Instead, the viewer must endure the remaining 15 minutes with blue balls.

The lack of an action-climax was a disappointment, but the lack of an intellectual payoff is what grated the most. I liked the Matrix and how it presented free will vs. determination. So many times this film will try to make its viewers think “Wow, this could be happening right now!”, when the agents are talking about the ways they orchestrate chance encounters. The pluralistic, all-inclusive nonsense is deeply troubling - Non-threatening black guy even awkwardly explains how “the chairman” is a “him or her”. There’s grist here for some compelling stuff - why don’t the agents find it troubling that the divine plan is subject to change? How is it that the agents themselves are victims of “chance” (clearly delineated in the film as being separate from “fate”)?

It’s clear that nobody was supposed to think too much about this film - even the style of the movie breaks down under scrutiny. They wear 50s style suits, conduct their activities with magic notebooks in distinctly ‘analogue’ buildings, but drive menacing, modern black SUVs?

Ugh. I could go on.

The Adjustment Bureau is a vapid, contrived mess, and it will give you blue balls.

One Sully out of Five

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