Tag Archives: thinking

The Adjustment Bureau


Chance and fate are like twin sisters; biologically related but far from identical. They are concepts we all know and experience day after day. Yet their effects fluctuate so wildly that no human being can define, prove or explain what exactly they are, or indeed confirm their existence with any certainty. The best, most brilliant minds throughout history have focused their attention on these beguiling, fascinating, unknowable sisters at some point. Everybody, from genius to crack addict, ponders the cruelties of chance, the favours of fate.

Was it chance that brought the girl of your dreams out onto the street in front of you? Was it just bad luck that you were spitting out your gum at the time, so that she walked head on into a potent projectile of sugared saliva and masticated goo? Or were you doomed to failure? Manipulative Miss Fate may have singled you out as her joke of the day. Then again, perhaps she was just redressing the balance after she took out the lights in the bar that time. Your powers of attraction increased tenfold in near darkness, allowing you to raise your standards considerably. That girl, let’s say Linda, barely noticed the peculiar crook of your nose, for instance, or the irrepressible leering tint to your eyes. But then again maybe there’s no balance at all, no order. Maybe it’s just Miss Chance, a bored, daydreaming secretary at her desk, absentmindedly jabbing at her keyboard.

Often the only way we can begin to explore or talk about these sisters is through storytelling. And George Nolfi’s first feature film as a director, The Adjustment Bureau, is fairly explicitly about the human relationship between our free will, each and every choice that we make, and our fate, the possible destiny that may be already determined for us, laid out beyond our control. The Adjustment Bureau is also a film that can claim to be a “sci-fi romantic thriller”; a distinctive and intriguing description of any story.

Indeed ever since I saw the trailer for The Adjustment Bureau I have been anticipating a thoroughly different blockbuster. Several of Phillip K. Dick’s stories have been taken on and adapted by Hollywood, and several more such as The Man in the High Castle (an alternative history of the Cold War), would make excellent movies. Dick had a knack for capturing fascinating science based or philosophical questions, within a captivating narrative framework that really made you think about the issue. Apparently Nolfi has expanded considerably on Dick’s short story, Adjustment Team, for this project, and that may account for some of its failings.

Numerous reviews have pointed out the plot holes in The Adjustment Bureau and lamented its implausibility. For a film marketing itself as exciting, the lack of engaging thrills has also been highlighted. It’s certainly something that requires a greater than usual suspension of disbelief to really enjoy it. However, critics have also been quick and correct to heap praise upon the performances of the two leads.

In interviews Emily Blunt and Matt Damon have talked of how they “dicked around” on set and tried to transfer some of this interaction, this genuine banter, to the screen. It’s a technique that worked tremendously well. Much of Nolfi’s dialogue in this film is good, but inevitably when trying to encompass such grand themes and deal with an issue like love at first sight, the odd passage is clunky, cliché and cheesy. These bad moments have the potential to seriously deflate the quality of a film. But Damon and Blunt’s brilliance ensures that these dances with disaster become strengths. Whenever an emotional speech is about to over step the mark, one of the characters, usually Blunt’s, makes a jokey remark to both lighten the tone and preserve the intensity of what went before. With such sensational plot components Blunt and Damon’s incredible, immense believability and appeal makes the romantic element of the story feel constantly real and affecting.

Damon in particular is excellent as the focus of the tale and adds another impressive notch to his CV. He appears to have truly arrived as a top Hollywood leading man. Here he plays up and coming senator David Norris, who concedes a mammoth lead in the polls thanks to some revelations about his wild shenanigans in the past. It was a step too far for voters, who had been willing to back the fresh faced, young and local candidate. Damon is completely convincing as a politician passionate for change but disillusioned with the system he must embrace to achieve it.

Underneath it all, Norris just wants company and affection, and this Damon portrays well too. In the Gents after his election defeat, he bumps into Elise, a contemporary ballet dancer. After an odd (but believable!) first meeting, Norris is as infected with the chemistry between them as the audience is. He abandons his conservative losing speech in favour of a frank, electrifying exposure of behind the scenes campaigning and the nature of politics as a whole. His popularity sky rockets (one of the film’s multitude of interesting ideas and points is how the public wants honesty in politics but good men are continually stifled from being themselves).

However when Norris tries to pursue his instant infatuation with Elise, he’s warned off by mysterious looking types in 1950s style period suits, wearing silly hats. This is The Adjustment Bureau; the people that make things happen according to plan. They are not all powerful, as they appear to be governed by their own set of rules and frequently require greater levels of “authorisation”, but they can flit about New York City by teleporting through doors and predict the choices you make. John Slattery, Anthony Mackie and Terrence Stamp, all give decent performances as agents of this supernatural organisation.

The dated look of the agents has come in for considerable criticism; but I rather liked it. Whilst the film could be more thrilling, it’s refreshing to watch a blockbuster that’s still exciting and engaging without being stunt heavy. The focus is not on the action but on the plot and the romance between Elise and David. As for the plot holes, especially increasingly silly ones towards the end, these are probably due to the fact that The Adjustment Bureau is ideas heavy. Sure some of these musings on such debated subjects as the limitations of free will, determinism, God, chance and love are far from subtle. But to me that doesn’t matter, especially given the convincing chemistry at the heart of the film driving it forward as the narrative focus. It’s extremely admirable, valid and bold to make a mainstream film about any of these ideas at all. The Adjustment Bureau will get you thinking and talking about them, and hopefully exploring these fascinating areas further.

Besides, in my opinion, not all of the film’s ideas are as flat and basic as some reviews would have you think. The corporation like structure of The Adjustment Bureau for example (with God referred to as The Chairman), made an extremely relevant point about the limitations of our free will today, in supposedly completely liberated western societies. We no longer realistically worry ourselves with tyrants and dictators, but money, class and big business can substantially shape our paths through life and the hold the powerful keys to turning points in our destiny.

I applaud the abundance of ideas in The Adjustment Bureau then, even if it could have been a better film. Because of all the talking points and its compelling romance, it is still a good and worthwhile watch. Perhaps the most resonant, but also cliché, point that it makes though, and chooses to conclude with, is that love is worth fighting for. Whatever uncontrollable obstacles life throws in the way, be it distance/geography, illness/injury or rivals/opponents, love can be enough and worth holding on to. No matter what.

Oh god. Did I actually just type that? Shoot me now. Yes their performances really are that good.

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The Empty Chair


Breakfast time. He’s gazing at the green wicker chair opposite. It’s staring back. Its rows of gaps and slats gape at him like multiple mouths; empty caverns gasping in mock shock. “Oh look”, they seem to sneer, “look who’s all alone. Who’d have thought it?” Then a pause for effect, before hissing “I’d have thought it, that’s who. Along with anyone else with half a brain cell and eyes to see.” The chair’s eyes, vacant and harmless to the casual observer, find him no matter where he shifts his own gaze. As he nibbles and sips he feels watched from all angles. Murmurs and glances scratch at every inch of his skin.

He’d not truly noticed this before, the sheer isolation and predicament of the solitary diner. Something about this particular chair, the way it reclined nonchalantly but never left his line of sight, the unoccupied, unshakeable presence, made him feel naked without a companion. As time dripped relentlessly onward, he simultaneously wanted to leave and was reluctant to retreat. The lifeless, faceless seat appeared as a harsh flash of green, even in his peripheries as he sought comfort in the splashing palms through the window. That morning, his first in the sunny retreat hotel, he’d been woken by the sounds of rain. Later he knew he’d resort to venturing out in it. There was no alternative.

Already he felt as though the trip had descended into a time killing exercise. He knew he’d have the same gripes and troubles and dissatisfied feeling with everyday life back home, but he knew too that he missed it, if only for the familiar company. It was obvious nothing miraculous or exciting would happen to him here. He would not “find” himself, he would not party wildly or meet new, compatible, worthwhile friends. He would waste time dragging out breakfast for another five, another ten, another twenty minutes. He’d drift in the drizzle by the marina and lose himself briefly in the wealth. At best he’d finish some books he’d been putting off reading.

A pair of waiters floated past, animated in hushed Spanish. The conversation did not seem professional, such was its urgency, but the music of foreign tongues rendered its meaning, and any recognisable comfort he might derive from it, impenetrable to him. He sought it instead in other diners but again failed to find it. The majority were all in groups, clusters close in proximity but distant in reality. He found himself sitting up and forward, mindlessly burying his vision in the green wicker chair. Watching it intently he noticed how perfectly the curvaceous arms would cradle the female form. Against his will his imagination conjured up girls he knew, girls he cared for, girls he loved. Their figures were framed by the wicker, their colourful clothes vivid against the green. Their bright, shining, brilliantly alive eyes were lifted and held by the chair to look straight into his own. They smiled and laughed with him and he was happy. Then his lips flickered as if to speak, his hand twitched involuntarily towards the imagined companion and the ghostly illusion abruptly dissipated. Noisy plates filled his ears as the recordings of blissful, hysterical giggles faded and died away like echoes in the chambers of his mind. Waiters hovered and pounced. He was alone.

He didn’t head immediately back to the room. His books weren’t going anywhere. He knew it was terrible, foolish and ungrateful to be already thinking of the day of his return, mentally calculating the countdown, but he couldn’t help it. He knew he’d regret an opportunity missed when he got back, total freedom squandered. But what was there to do? He wanted to plunge into the waters of the Med, but rain poured outside. He would stroll by crushing waves later, check out the Marina bars again. Maybe he’d be hit by literary inspiration. He was already rationing his contact with friends; no internet for a while, no post-cards yet, a maximum of one text per day. He had to be doing things, justifying the Gap Year, or appear to be.

He’d plucked an apple from the stand in the breakfast room and tossed it from hand to hand now. He was sprawled on a ridiculously stylish and comfortable black leather chair in the luxurious lobby. Shiny marble glistened. Later, on his way back to the room, he would nearly fall over twice. Why did this hotel insist on tiny, imperceptible slopes everywhere? They were too steep to walk over normally and naturally, but too slight to be negotiated as one would a couple of steps. Someone would break their neck on the polished white marble and what a ruinous mess that would make. He would read and wander. And the eyes of the empty chair would plague him all week.