By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 5, 2011)
Do to others as you would have them do to you
Do what thou wilt
There is a contemporary film sub-genre that I like to call Guys with Fedoras. A Guys with Fedoras film is usually sub-headed under (although not necessarily restricted to) science fiction films. Think along the lines of Dark City, The Matrix, or A Beautiful Mind. When the Guys with Fedoras show up, you just know that the the rug is about to pulled out from under someone’s feet, and anything could happen.
Up is down, down is up. These guys are the reality benders, the cerebral copulators, the puppet masters. They may very well be the nebulous “they” who are so often referenced hose in the throes of delusional paranoia (or fervent prayer-in which case “they” may be referred to as “angels” or “demons” ). That is, if you believe in that sort of thing. At any rate, it does bring up interesting questions, like “What is reality?” Or, “Am I really the master of my own fate?” Or, perhaps of the most importance, “Does this explain why my iPhone picks the most inopportune moment to drop my call?”
All these conundrums and a large orange soda are incorporated into The Adjustment Bureau, perhaps best described as a “sci-fi romantic thriller”. This marks the directing debut for screenwriter George Nolfi (The Bourne Ultimatum, Oceans Twelve), who adapted from a short story by Philip K. Dick (“The Adjustment Team”). The result? Well, it ain’t Blade Runner (or even Total Recall), but it is an engaging (if not 100% original) diversion that breezes along amiably, like a lightweight mash-up of Wings of Desire, The Truman Show, and Bedazzled (I refer to the original Peter Cook/Dudley Moore version, of course).
Matt Damon settles in comfortably with his role as New York politician David Norris (a Brooklyn native) who is running for the U.S. Senate. Young, handsome, energetic and blessed with a winning persona, he looks to be a shoo-in…until his reputation is besmirched by a NYC rag (a certain Rupert Murdoch property, I believe) when they publish a revealing frat party photo from his college days.
Consequently, the mood at David’s campaign HQ on election night is less than joyous. Just prior to delivering his concession speech, he ducks into a washroom to steal a few moments of private reflection, and “meets cute” with a charismatic ballerina (Emily Blunt). Like many of us who have had the occasion to bump into charismatic ballerinas in the men’s washroom, David instantly falls head over heels-and the feeling appears to be mutual. It’s Damon and Blunt’s (and the film’s) best scene; buoyed by some well-written and delivered repartee that recalls the flirtatious and sophisticated exchanges between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest.
Before the two can arrange their first date, however, duty calls-and David has to go give his Big Speech, and Elise (the name of our washroom-lurking ballerina) has to flee before security catches up with her (don’t ask). David, inspired by the chance encounter, gives the speech of his political career; snatching a kind of PR victory from the jaws of defeat. Now, things are looking up for David…until he’s cock-blocked by the Guys with Fedoras, who now enter the picture.
Actually, they are much more subtle in their meddling ways than, say, the New York Post. You see, “they” are not out to shower malevolence onto David; in fact they are only “authorized” to make the tiniest little “adjustments”, here and there, to assure that everybody on the planet follows their destiny, as has been pre-ordained by their boss, who is only referred to as “The Chairman”. Are you following all this so far?
Now, as omniscient and all-powerful as these “case workers” appear, they can still be trumped by Chance. It was Chance that David and Elise’s paths crossed; turns out that they are not pre-ordained to be together, and this has the Guys with Fedoras’ underwear in a bunch. Any further elaboration risks spoilers; suffice it to say if Chance trumps the agents of fate, I think there is a general consensus that Love Conquers All. An existential game of cat and mouse ensues between David and the forces “conspiring” against him.
So, despite the dark and visionary sci-fi pedigree and a $50 million budget, is this sounding like a glorified update of It’s a Wonderful Life? After all, wasn’t Clarence the Angel a sort of a benevolent “adjuster”, a case worker assigned by the “boss” to nudge Jimmy Stewart back onto his Pre-Ordained Path? Although the “G” word is never mentioned, it’s clear that the “Chairman” represents You-Know-Who.
I still can’t decide whether writer-director Nolfi is telegraphing a weirdly fundamental Christian message; especially since it is implied that if David insists on pursuing and consummating the love of his life, he does so at the expense of not only the bright political future that has been pre-ordained for him, but the fame and fortune that Elise is “destined” for in her chosen profession (the catch being, he has, by pure chance, stumbled into the man behind the curtain and learned about the Chairman’s plans, while she remains oblivious).
The message seems to be that they are not allowed to have both. Mustn’t go against the will of God, you know, and give in to Temptation-or you’ll be tossed out of the garden (although, in this case, I can’t figure out if David and Elise are supposed to be Adam and Eve…or Edward and Mrs. Simpson). All that speculation aside, if you are a sci-fi fan, you will likely enjoy the ride. It’s also refreshing to see a reality-bending thriller that doesn’t O.D. on CGI and shit blowing up (there is some violence, but none of it fatal-which is a refreshing change of pace). And hey, any film featuring Terrence Stamp playing a kind of super-Ninja adjuster can’t be all bad, right?
If Sinatra is The Chairman, and The Chairman is God, then…never mind.