Sorry about he slight break with these reviews. I started a secondary blog called The Games Dump with which to post mostly video based content about games. Turns out I’m a really slow editor and easily distracted and so it took me 2 weeks to finish a simple 9 minute video. Because of that I struggled to find the time to write a review. But that video is done and now I’m back on track for some movie based writing. Today’s review is for the paranoia thriller-cum-romance The Adjustment Bureau. Click the link for my review.
Hollywood has a strange love/hate relationship with Philip K Dick. On the one hand they read the synopsis for his stories, and only the synopsis, and say to themselves “Gee, there’s a really cool premise. Let’s make a movie!”. The they hire a writer to scribe the film and he’s obviously capable of reading and so says to the studio bosses “You’re aware this is only a short story and it really doesn’t have a second or third act right?”, to which the producers say, “What the hell is an act?”. See Philip K Dick was a great writer for ideas. He’d come up with a premise and play out a scenario to just the right point where his personal paranoia has now worked it’s way into your brain. What he didn’t do so often was write stories that had large arcs and dramatic conclusions that would suit film. Some do, most don’t. We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, the short story both Total Recall films were based on, for example finishes around the point Doug Quail (As he is called in the story) is about to have a second REKAL treatment and they discover the memories they’re implanting are already there. No trip to Mars, no spy adventures and no eyes popping out of skulls. Worst of all no three boobed hookers. So, over the years adapting his stories have proved tricky.
The Adjustment Bureau is based on the similarly titles Adjustment Team. In it an estate agent gets a peak behind the curtain of a world of people, heavily implied to be angels of some kind, that control every aspect of our daily lives in order to make sure that they fit the plan. A tail of an every-man that realises there’s something wrong with his world then. The Adjustment Bureau really takes quite a step away from that story but does at least keep some of it’s ideas. The story follows David Norris (Matt Damon), a politician in the running for state senate to New York, who has a chance meeting with a woman called Elise (Emily Blunt) after losing the vote. A while later he meets her again, only trouble is he wasn’t meant to and some men in suits really want to keep them apart. What follows is 100 minutes of a semi paranoid tale of running around and a slightly sickly romantic centre.
The film goes to great pains to make us feel that David is an every-man despite being a politician. His entire campaign revolves around the fact he’s a regular guy in touch with the younger voters of the day. His initial campaign run is foiled by the revelation that at one point he was a teenager and did silly things. Oddly his campaign was largely built off the fact that he was such an every-man that he got into a bar fight once. He’s a lonely guy who we are told feels the need to fill the void left by the deaths of his whole immediate family with being the centre of attention in these political campaigns. The effectiveness of us being informed that he uses being the centre of attention to fill a void in his life isn’t particularly well handled. Instead of showing us gradually they just flat out tell us the reasons whys he is who he is.
David is told in no uncertain terms by the men at The Adjustment Bureau that he must never speak of them to anyone and cannot ever see Elise again. Years later, by a certain amount of chance, David sees Elise in the street and so reignites the romance he lost years ago. The story balances the idea of impulse versus the need for control and order. David is constantly feeling drawn to Elise and so he cannot hold up that half of the deal he made. The romantic plot between them is the centre of the majority of the film and it would be OK but were it not for one element of the plot that damages the film from truly hitting home with the viewers.
The Adjustment Bureau seem to only care about the bigger plan at hand. A plan made by an unseen character they call The Chairman. Their plan is for David to eventually become president. This is a lofty goal and one that’s un-relatable to the average audience. All the work to make David a relatable character is now in jeopardy because it now feels like The Adjustment Bureau are only interfering with the lives of those that make a difference to the world. In the original short book the fact the main character was just an estate agent was clear. He didn’t appear as an every-man because he WAS the every-man. He was just a guy and because his life was being controlled, by proxy, ours as readers were too. The film makes a brief mention of the men in suits using simple acts such as a spilt drink or a lack of phone signal to change events. There’s also the evidence that anyone wearing a hat could be one of them. That’s it though. We don’t see them effecting the small inconsequential moments in the average Joe’s life. Only the life of a future President and future world famous dancer. Elise is the dancer… I should have mentioned that. Not important though, we just have to be aware that she has a dream too.
To a certain extent this story does work it’s paranoia worms, to the extent that all of us can feel as though our dreams are being effected by some unknown force, but it’s not enough to inject the amount of paranoia needed for an actual paranoia thriller. Instead the focus on a romance that’s literally described as “meant to be” on multiple occasions ends up feeling like one of those ham fisted romances you get in tripe like the Twilight films. What does help this story along is the fact that it keeps a steady pace and in general the performances are strong enough to make the most out of a shaky script. What doesn’t help is the clear evidence that they didn’t have a strong plan for where this film should go by act 3.
The films finale starts off as you’d expect. Of course David needs to take a risk for his love and so a big chase can ensue. The trouble is that by this point there’s no strong antagonist and the films finale moments fall incredibly flat in a kind “well, we’re done now. Thanks for coming” kind of way. The lack of a strong villain is down to the replacement of the first antagonist Richardson (John Slattery) with the more overtly threatening Thompson played by Zod himself, Terrance Stamp. The issue with this switcheroo is twofold. 1) the man we’ve gradually come to dislike is now made to look like small-fry and he’s pretty much forgotten for the rest of the film. No arc for him. 2) Thompson is a guy we’re told means serious business but as he turns up halfway through we haven’t seen that and he pretty much just does the same as Richardson but with a slightly more threatening tone. What would have made for a stronger villain would have been if either Thompson was there from the start, or better still, Richardson had gradually been made to become more of a threatening and evil character because of the lengths he was being forced to go to by David. He would have had an arc that went from a guy doing his job to a potential sadist all because he wanted to stop a man being with his true love. That is a far stronger approach to a villain. A villain has to have his own arc and go through his own changes because of the changes the hero is going though. You can’t just switch one guy for another.
Overall the film is fairly average with the majority of it’s issues being the plot lacking the teeth needed to really clamp down on the elements and themes that make a paranoia thriller work. The solid performances manage to stop the film being entirely forgettable. Largely this is helped by a good supporting cast which includes Anthony Mackie as a sympathetic member of the Bureau and Michael Kelly (Who I swear is in a film I review every few months) as David’s friend Charlie who unfortunately is given little to do. The film is shot in a pretty straight forward fashion with the only real sign of visual flair being the use of steady cam and hand-held cam to depict the difference in the control currently being exerted by the Adjustment Bureau. I get the feeling something was cut from this film in order to squeeze a few more screenings per night out of it. I doubt what was cut could have saved the film though. If the bureau are so keen to keep David and Elise apart so he can become President and she can become a dancer why not just say to David, just wait until you’re in the White House. Where would have been the harm then? David never asks that I guess because he wants Elise now but surely that’s the logical question to ask. People try bargaining with their oppressors right? Anyway, average film but there’s at least some modicum of enjoyment to be had. I’m glad I watched this over the Total Recall remake in order to get my Philip K Dick fix.
I was gonna say my fix of Dick there… Glad I didn’t.