The Adjustment Bureau

March 7, 2011

It’s a science fiction romance, which is nice.  It’s mostly internally cohesive.  I liked that a good chunk of the film is from the point of view of the Bureau men, giving them an arc, motivations, characterization, etc.  It made for a well-rounded story.  The chase scenes looked good.  Matt Damon really does carry the film.  Unfortunately, my friends and I went to dinner after, and the more we talked about the film, the less it held together.  It was an adequate movie.  But it could have been so much better.  Spoilers may follow.

I wish Elise had been less of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  I had high hopes, because when she first appeared I thought, “Wow, she looks the age she’s supposed to be, and not like an airbrushed model.  She looks like a real human being, and I love that.”  But then. . .well.  It would have been nice if at any point she actually told David (the Matt Damon character) her dreams and aspirations.  But no, he learns that from the Bureau agents.  We never hear it from her, which makes the character sort of vague and one-dimensional.  And if she really wanted to find out what happened to him, it’s not like he’s hard to find or anything.  He’s a politician running for U.S. Senate — call his campaign headquarters, for crying out loud!  But no.   Four lines of dialog would have fixed the whole thing and turned her from one-dimensional love interest into a well-rounded character.

It would have been nice, in a film that states it’s about fate versus free will, for the main character to actually solve his own damn problem (like he was so adept at doing earlier in the film) instead of literally getting handed the magic key to the whole puzzle.  Deus ex machina, indeed.

The film skated along, zipping past lots of really interesting, meaty issues, without even noticing that it had even approached them.  I found that. . .disappointing.

Oh, and apparently, the Adjustment Bureau (run by the Chairman, who is pretty explicitly God, and whose agents are pretty explicitly angels) only cares about Europe and the U.S.  As Agent Thompson explains, the Bureau was in charge until the height of the Roman Empire, then stepped aside to let humans have a chance at running things, after which we got “500 years of the Dark Ages.”  And I’m thinking, “You know, the rest of the world was doing pretty okay during those 500 years.”   Thompson goes on to tell how the Bureau stepped in again to bring about the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution, and then decided to give humans another shot at running things in 1910.  Two world wars and the threat of nuclear annihilation followed.  The Bureau took over again after the Cuban Missile Crisis.  One concludes from this that the ravages of colonialism, the institution of slavery in the west, a dozen or so other major wars, and the genocides of the last 50 years are all part of the Bureau’s big plan.  Which is. . .confusing, to say the least.

So.  The Adjustment Bureau is okay in the way that most adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s works have been okay.  They all start out with the juicy paranoia of a man battling an omniscient conspiracy, which is very engaging.  And then it pulls the punch — this one pulls a couple of them that I could count — and refuses to think the idea through or deal with the implications of the situation set up by the story.  By the end, all the hard edges get polished off.

5 Responses to “The Adjustment Bureau”

  1. Sean Eric Fagan Says:

    I came out with a completely different opinion of the film than you did — I walked out angry, feeling that it had been a waste of my time.

    This particular genre, or plot, has been done before, and it usually suffers from the same failings: the omnipotent, omniscient adversaries are omnipotent and omniscient, except when they’re not, and everyone is directly manipulatable except for Our Heroes. (E.g., able to cause a car crash with absolutely no warning, but unable to really keep Our Heroes apart.)

    And that’s not even getting into the theological aspects of it, which annoyed me even more.

    Grrr, I said!

  2. carriev Says:

    I agree with everything you said. There was enough pretty that I was distracted (I’m a sucker for a well dressed man in a fedora). But like I said, the more I think about it, the worse it gets.

  3. Bradford Says:

    I really enjoyed Adjustment Bureau. The romance in the SF setting was quite fun, and the SF “big idea” was novel and very clever.

    As for some of the criticisms, let me just say that Angels aren’t usually killers, as we were told happened with David’s brother. If you interpret the Bureau as being God and his angels, then this is a very different God and angels than most of us usually imagine. Of course, that would be consistent with the way Philip Dick’s mind generally worked.

    As for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl concept, this seems a gross over-generalization that belittles many fine films and the portrayals by many of our finest actresses. The Wiki article you linked to links to an article stating 16 MPDG’s. I note that two of them come from films which won best picture. (Annie Hall, The Apartment) At least one MPDG was for an actress that won Best Actress for the role. (Goldie Hawn). I also think that many of the MPDG’s listed don’t really fit the category. For example, Shirley MacClaine in The Apartment played a very complicated character, and Katherine Hepburn was no more crazy than Carey Grant in Bringing up Baby.

    You complain of Deux ex machina at the end, and you are literally correct. It’s true that the ending could have involved Matt Damon’s character directly confronting the Chairman, but I really enjoyed the ending anyway; let me explain why. The final scene appeared to play out on the top of the Empire State Building. This paid homage to An Affair to Remember, and thereby also Sleepless in Seattle, two wonderfully romantic films. But that scene also references another classic movie: Meet John Doe, in which the climactic scene involves Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck atop the Empire State Building. And for viewers familiar with that film, the Deux ex machina ending of Adjustment Bureau was surely a relief, and far superior to what appeared to be the only way out for our protagonists.

  4. Bradford Says:

    Oops, I guess that was “city hall” in Meet John Doe. But it seemed like the top of the Empire State Building…

  5. jacqie Says:

    Another Manic Pixie Dream Girl show and characters (and thank you for giving me a name for this concept, which has annoyed my and yet been unquantifiable to this point) Lily and Robin on How I Met Your Mother.


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