The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)


I can’t get past the timeline.

In “The Adjustment Bureau,” David Norris (Matt Damon), a rising political star, learns there is a team of men—and it is just men—wearing suits and fedoras a la “Mad Men,” and led by a dude named Richardson (John Slattery from, of course, “Mad Men”), who control everything. Or almost everything. They spill coffee, sprain ankles, make sure this person misses that bus and lives; make sure that person crosses this street and dies. The infuriating randomness of life? It’s not random. There’s a plan. For everything and everyone. Feel like you’re stuck in a dead-end job with a dead-end wife? Sorry, that’s the plan. Are you rich and powerful and influential? Do you feel like you’re touched somehow? You are! Greater powers than us are determining your fate! And by greater powers I’m talking ... you know. Upstairs.

“Are you an angel?” David asks Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie), who is more or less David’s case officer.

“We go by many names,” Harry answers.

So if angels are mostly clean-cut, trim men in business suits and hats, and God is called “The Chairman,” what’s the afterlife like? A business meeting? Or is that purgatory?

“The Adjustment Bureau” doesn’t touch on such mundane topics as death, though. It’s more interested in matters of love and free will.

“Whatever happened to free will?” David asks Thompson (Terrence Stamp), the fierce angel/case worker who is brought in on the Norris matter after Richardson and Mitchell fail. David, you see, is supposed to become President of the United States one day, but he keeps deviating from the plan to fall in love with a dancer/choreographer/free spirit named Elise (Emily Blunt).

“We actually tried free will before,” Thompson replies. Then he gives us the following timeline:

“After taking you from hunting and gathering to the height of the Roman Empire we stepped back to see how you'd do on your own. You gave us the Dark Ages for five centuries... until finally we decided we should come back in. The Chairman thought maybe we just needed to do a better job of teaching you how to ride a bike before taking the training wheels off again. So we gave you the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution. For six hundred years we taught you to control your impulses with reason, then in 1910 we stepped back. Within fifty years, you'd brought us World War I, the Depression, Fascism, the Holocaust and capped it off by bringing the entire planet to the brink of destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis. At that point a decision was taken to step back in again before you did something that even we couldn't fix.”

Height of the Roman Empire. Julius Caesar? Augustus? Were Caligula and Nero part of the plan? Was Jesus? Hey, good news, Christians! Whichever way it turns out with the son of God, Mohammed (570-632) most certainly wasn’t, since he didn’t come around until the decline of the Roman Empire. Take that, Islam!

Plus: For 600 years they taught us to control our impulses? 1310-1910? Right, I forgot. The Epoch of Great Tepidity, marked by continual wars in Europe, the devastation of the native populations in the Americas, and the Marquis de Sade.

But it’s the recent timeline that bugs me. The angels left us alone from 1910 to 1962. So, on our own, we did WWI and WWII and the Stock Market Crash of 1929 from all that greed, which led to the Great Depression. But didn’t we also do, on our own, Gandhi, FDR, the New Deal, the defeat of the Third Reich, the creation of the U.N., and Martin Luther King and the beginning of the civil rights movement? Not to mention “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” “Seven Samurai” and rock ‘n’ roll. Not bad for being abandoned by the angels.

I get ’62, too. Cuban Missile Crisis. World on the brink. But that means the following were all part of the plan: the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK; the Vietnam War and Nixon and Watergate; the disappearance of the American middle class. W. and 9/11. Afghanistan and Iraq. The global financial meltdown from all that greed, which led to the Great Recession. Plus take your pick of war, famine, genocide, and Republican president.

Who the fuck is writing this thing anyway?

It gets worse. Since ’62, the movement within the U.S., the most powerful country on earth, has been away from greater social control and toward market forces and anti-regulation and each to his own and que sera sera. And what’s causing all this? The Plan: a form of social control that would make Josef Stalin weep from envy.

Nice message, Hollywood.

Of course that’s not Hollywood’s message. The movie may be about The Plan and our lack of free will, but its ultimate message is the same as it ever was. We do have free will, we can alter the plan, and maybe someday, if we learn to control ourselves, we’ll be writing The Plan ourselves. Rah.

There are bright spots. I liked Norris’ scuffed-shoe speech. I thought Emily Blunt was flirty and fizzy and original, my immediate choice for any future, smart romantic comedy. I wondered if Matt Damon had the flu during filming—he looked a little pig-eyed at times.

The movie is based upon yet another short story by Philip K. Dick, who wrote the stories that became “Blade Runner,” “Total Recall” and “Minority Report,” but whose stories feel vastly overrated to me. They seem silly. Maybe because they remind me of the kind of thing I used to write in my twenties and thirties.

I once wrote a short story called “In God’s Waiting Room,” where getting into heaven was like a job interview, which I, or my main character, Ellery Pimentel, kept failing. “The Adjustment Bureau” doesn’t feel much different from that. Here, God is the unseen CEO of a corporation in which we’re all lowly members; but if you try hard enough, if you keep persisting, if you kiss the girl at the right moment in the right way, well, you still won’t be able to see Him. But He might, like any good CEO, steal your ideas.

—September 15, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard