Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Adjustment Bureau

In The Adjustment Bureau, Matt Damon plays a young, up-and-coming senator bidding for a seat in New York. The first few sequences cover his campaign trail, from speeches made to the public to a live session at Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. All these are conveyed with economy – so much so that we even begin to think that the movie is going to be another political drama.

Then the results come in; Damon is flustered by all his work; he meets a charming girl in the men’s room (of all places); and is inspired to make a speech different to the one that had been written for him. This latter act awakens fresh popularity for him, and soon puts him back in the race. The background score suggests layer upon layer of intrigue, and then we see a group of fedora hat wearing, '50s-suits-wearing men – one of them looking suspiciously like Tommy Lee Jones from Men In Black – observing all these happenings with cryptic remarks. What’s going on here?

Unfortunately, The Adjustment Bureau never really lets you near the answer. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t amount to a big disappointment, but the problem is that it never makes you to want to find the answer for yourself either. The pace quickens a little after one of those strange men fails to prevent Damon from meeting that girl (Emily Blunt) the next morning. We learn then that if ever God wanted everyone under his eyes to go about their lives in a set pattern, he would achieve this goal through an office which contains strange, fedora hat wearing men walking around slowly, like in a bureaucracy, with a Chairman at their head and British actor Terence Stamp as an extremely serious advisor. The setup is ridiculous, I agree – but then again, what story involving a lone man against a multitude of them who can open one door in one street to enter a totally different area wouldn’t be?

The problem with this movie is that it’s based on a Philip K. Dick story, and I have gotten somewhat used to seeing such movies fall along a certain pattern. I do not expect a rush-and-tumble, thrills-from-start format. As Blade Runner proved a quarter-century or so back, Dick’s stories could be brooding, philosophical, with no excessive movement. But in the very least, a chain-format with a little bit more action would have made this one more interesting to follow. A Bach composition can only be done full justice to at the hands of a Casals. I suspect such a rule should exist for adaptations of Dick’s works too.

The story in The Adjustment Bureau revolves around a metaphysical theme, as it does pretty much in every part of Dick’s world. This time, it’s the dichotomy between free will and fate. The overwhelming question posed in the movie seems to be this – if we decided our own fate, wouldn’t the very act of choosing between different fates imply a certain degree of free will? The senior advisor doesn’t think so, but, as I wrote before, he’s an extremely serious advisor.

Two strengths made up for the movie’s weaknesses. One was its casting. Matt Damon seems to me just about the most suitable actor the producers could have chosen for his role in it. The role requires someone who can appear bewildered and determined at the same time, and Damon to me seems the perfect embodiment of both. Emily Blunt as Elise, “that girl” Fate ordains Damon should never meet, is also apt, but to a lesser degree. In any case, the story focuses on her really sharply after the first two-thirds are done, so it wasn’t a dissonance in the movie.

The other plus point for me is in its special effects. Like Nolan’s best films, the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred in this one. There is not a hint or suggestion of how much the movie’s budget went into pyrotechnic special-effects, because there aren’t any. Don’t expect the gimmickries or visual splendors of a Minority Report or A.I.: Artificial Intelligence here, because the movie simply doesn’t need them. This being based on a Philip K. Dick story, I was pleasantly surprised at it, because it tended to focus our attention on where it belongs rightly: the relationship between its main characters.

Of course, the story was handled well. It’s just that it could have been handled better. Were the directors destined to make the movie this way? I wish I knew. But that would need a time machine, something that is thankfully missing in this terse romantic sci-fi thriller.