Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

Alternate Title:  Would the Junior Senator from New York please cease fucking up reality?

One sentence synopsis:  A congressman running for Senate meets the girl of his dreams, only to find that a shadowy organization that secretly runs the world needs to keep them seperated because of the 'plan'.

Things Havoc liked:  I've mentioned before (in True Grit) that I'm not a big fan of Matt Damon. Most of the time, when I watch him, I find myself watching Matt Damon, not his character. While he's had good performances before, I have never found them to be as good as most people thought. I have to say though that in this movie, as well as in True Grit, I had no such trouble. Damon plays his congressman like a guy who is smart, driven, rational, and who never crosses the line into cariacature. If not an outstanding job, it is at least a very very good one. The same can be said for Emily Blunt, whom I've seen before but am not as familiar with. Both of them sell their roles well, and don't dive into overacting hysterics, even when the script would nudge them that way.

But the real surprise for me in this film was the plot, the style and the villains. The trailers for this film indicated (to me at least) that this was going to be some kind of high-speed chase thriller movie, and more specifically, an incredibly generic high-speed chase thriller movie. Already tepid in my enthusiasm for Matt Damon starring vehicles, I could not have been less interested in seeing what appeared to be "Jason Bourne vs. the Illuminati". Yet to my surprise, the film was nothing of the sort. The pacing in this movie is slow and deliberate and takes its time to let the characters act reasonably towards one another and towards the audience. The chase sequences, which are obligatory of course, are more than just people running/driving away from other people. They resemble less a typical car chase and more of a running game of chess, particularly one about halfway through the movie where we see Matt Damon trying through wit and ingenuity to get somewhere while two Adjustment Agents try, through equally careful wit and ingenuity, to stop him. There's no stupid distractions of stunts driving or parcours to get in the way. Both participants are smart people trying to outsmart one another in the heat of the moment. They don't stop for kung fu brawls or gunfights, and even talk to one another, civilly, along the way. When one person wins the race, the other does not scream to the heavens or swear eternal revenge. He takes stock and decides what to do now.

And that leads me to the biggest surprise, for me, which is the bad guys. Indeed, it's hard even to call them bad guys. For one thing, they're played with great charisma and screen presence by Anthony Ruivivar, John Slattery, and the always magnetic Terence Stamp. What they are (angels) is never explicitly stated (angels) but is broadly hinted at (angels) repeatedly (angels) and at length (angels) early in the film. The film takes great pains to portray them however as anything but the illuminati. The very first confrontation between the Adjustors and our hero results in the chief bad guy capturing the hero, taking stock of what he's done, and deciding on the spot to level with him completely and tell him the truth about everything that's happening. And then once they let him go, another bad guy stops by to answer the questions he undoubtedly has about what he's just been told. All without scenery chewing, without stupid villain tricks, and without even any real palpable malice.

Indeed, there's no malice in these guys at all, which I think is a brilliant move. We see Adjustors doing their jobs to the best of their abilities, warts and all (one of them oversleeps, and then gets hit by a car trying to fix his mistake). There are never any pretensions of omniscience for them. They react to circumstances as best they can, working out plans on the fly that sometimes fizzle unexpectedly, trying to fix the ever-expanding messes that result as best they can. When they fail, their reaction is not to execute the hero, but to file paperwork and call for backup. While there are handwaves in the direction of an "ultimate penalty" for those who transgress very seriously against the plan, their modus operandi is to prevent the issues from arising in the first place. Punishing the transgressor for violating the plan makes no sense, because the plan wasn't supposed to be transgressable in the first place. The Adjustors seem to take Damon's continued meddling as evidence that they're not doing their job properly, not as evidence that he needs to be silenced/liquidated/whatever. After all, killing Damon wasn't in the plan. When Damon's antics finally get his file pushed up to Stamp's level (A really senior official whose nickname is "the Hammer"), his strategy is not thunder and lightning, but sitting Damon down in a parking garage and reasoning with him.

I cannot insist enough on how refreshing this approach is. The Adjustors come across as Celestial Bureaucrats, and not necessarily indifferent ones. Even the "uncaring" ones are given lines and scenes that show how seriously and with what diligence they take their work, and how they deal with the inevitable thoughts of remorse or doubt about enacting a plan that most of them are not even party to. When Damon and Stamp discuss free will and predestination, Stamp's arguments are devastatingly effective and brilliantly written. He neither raises his voice nor makes threats, but efficiently and logically spells out just why he does what he does, not merely to justify himself or chew scenery, but to give real, moral reasons for the Adjustment Bureau itself. Most villains who bother to explain themselves in movies do so just so the audience can be spoonfed a parable about how "just following orders" or "ends justify the means" leads to disaster. It's rare to find a movie where you find yourself conceding that the villains are right because the movie is written well enough to permit them to be. When the movie finally ended, I found myself actually rooting for both sides.

Things Havoc disliked:   Seriously guys, magic hats?

Look, I don't mind non-standard mythology, and I don't require that everything be explained. The stuff with the doors (Adjustors are able to use doors to travel to anywhere else with a door, essentially) is fine. It works on solid mythological grounds, but more importantly, it's well within the suspension of disbelief and doesn't require explanation. But some of the mechanics of this world, such as the water stuff or the hats, are so transparently arbitrary as to render it impossible to accept, at least for me. While God may work in mysterious ways, he generally doesn't work in ones this absurd. What explanation goes into the magic hats only serves to make it worse, frankly. If you're using arbitrary magic, don't try and handwave it as though it wasn't.

The above is just a nitpick. What's more serious however is that the plot starts to disintegrate in the last third of the movie. The arbitrary rules that govern the world start having to get more arbitrary just to enable the plot to function. More unforgibably, the characters' behavior becomes more arbitrary as well, discarding the wit and intellect with which they had been acting previously. It doesn't totally throw it out the window, but there are several specific scenes wherein the characters act in a totally unrealistic manner because the plot requires it. Were this a lesser film with less well-drawn characters, it wouldn't be so obvious.

Finally, the ending, which I will not spoil, while it makes logical, and perhaps a degree of inevitable sense (and has a pretty neat camera trick to it as well), is somewhat unsatisfying. I can't really say more without giving the game away, but it felt... beneath the film somehow. Just a feeling.

Final thoughts:    I really wasn't expecting to like this film at all. Hell, I originally opted to see Tron instead, which was not the best decision I've ever made. Maybe it was my lowered expectations, but this movie impressed me with its intelligence and compitancy. It wasn't a mind-bending movie like Inception, nor a tour-de-force, but it was a damn good little flick, and one that should teach me not to necessarily judge a film by its trailer.

Unless that film is Battle: Los Angeles. Fuck that noise.

Final Score:  7.5/10

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