Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Adjustment Bureau

I confess, most fiction bores the living spit out of me. The real world is already 15,000 times as perverse as anything I'm going to encounter in a novel, and frankly (let's be blunt), 999 out of 1000 novels are written to such preposterously low literary standards that I, for one, can rarely get past page two of a novel without thinking of Dorothy Parker's famous comment: "This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It must be thrown across the room with great force."

The same goes for movies. It seems like I start five movies for every one I finish. Consequently, when that rare movie or book comes along that catches me off guard and forces me to admire it against my will, I always take the time to go back and do a post-mortem. I ask myself: What was it about this movie that reeled me in, so to speak, even though I didn't think there was a chance in hell I was going to like it? At what point did I agree to suspend disblief? What hooked me? What worked so well that I couldn't stop watching?
Terence Stamp as ├╝ber-adjuster Thompson.

These are especially pertinent questions for The Adjustment Bureau (2011), which I knew (or so I thought), going in, I couldn't possibly stand to watch, much less enjoy. After all, I'm not religious; I don't believe in angels. The mere mention of a movie about angels makes me want to projectile-vomit. And Matt Damon? Haven't we seen just about enough of that guy on the big screen? (And the not-so-big screen?)

We enter the story with a cloyingly upbeat Congressman David Norris (played by Damon) stumping for a Senate race. He's giving speeches, shaking hands, grinning the win-grin; it looks very much as if the youngest-ever U.S. Representative from New York is destined to become the youngest-ever Senator-from-New-York. But the story immediately pivots. As Norris watches election-night returns on a hotel-room TV, it's increasingly obvious that he's not only going to lose his Senate bid, but lose big. News-channel pundits are already writing his political obituary. He has only a few minutes to pull together a concession speech.

Norris heads downstairs to face a ballroom packed with disappointed supporters, but on the way he darts into a men's room to practice his speech, not realizing that a gorgeous young wedding crasher, Elise Sellas (played by Emily Blunt), is hiding from hotel police in a nearby stall. After several telling moments of solo speech-practicing, Norris decides to use the stall. Out pops an embarrassed Sellas, who explains her predicament. She suddenly recognizes Norris as "the guy running for Senate." Some nervous-clever banter ensues. She critiques the speech. Soon the two are trying to ignore some pretty heavy chemistry.

It's at this critical juncture that writer-director George Nolfi (The Bourne Ultimatum) takes the film's first big risk, having David and Elise ram lips together in the men's room. The "cute meet" takes place only a few minutes into the movie, and the credibility of all that follows rides (arguably) on the believability of this key moment. If it doesn't work, the viewer will disengage; if it works, it better work like hell. Incredibly, the actors manage to pull it off—enough for me to nod approvingly and say "Okay, brave move, I'm buying it so far. Let's see what happens next."

Blunt and Damon pull off an unlikely (but ultimately successful) "cute meet" early in the film.
We soon learn that Norris is being shadowed by a nondescript man in a suit and hat named Mitchell (superbly played by Anthony Mackie), whom we see sitting on a park bench in the morning, receiving instructions from another nondescript "suit" named Richardson (played by John Slattery) to the effect that Norris has to be made to spill his coffee no later than 7:05 a.m. Mitchell tells Richardson not to worry, he'll get Norris as soon as he enters the park.

With this scene, director-writer Nolfi deftly dodges a bullet. Had Nolfi clearly announced Richardson and Mitchell as angels, I would have said "That's enough for me" and stopped watching. Rather than put halos around anyone's head, Nolfi (with the sure knowledge that every viewer has seen The Matrix multiple times) clearly labels the suits in the park as Agents. All we know about them is that they're tailing our man and plan to disrupt his life. To what end, though? "Spilling the coffee" could be code language. Maybe it's a sting operation of some kind. Maybe they're NSA? CIA? ("Good," I'm saying, tossing a chip into the pile. "I'm in for one more round. Deal cards.")

Mitchell, the agent, dozes off while waiting in the park, waking up just in time to see Norris board his bus. The 7:05 window is gone. Mitchell grabs a notebook from his pocket, flips it open, and looks at it in alarm. He jumps up and bolts after the bus, sprinting into and out of traffic, eventually getting struck (though not killed, of course) by a cab.

Bear in mind, at this point in the movie there've already been several "shits" and "damns" and other small comforts to let me know this isn't a Jesus-freak operation. Not by a long shot. The suits seem vaguely menacing (and now inept; they can't even make someone spill coffee on time, or avoid a taxi-cab enema in New York City). God's away on business, apparently.

When our man Norris takes his seat on the bus, the bus lurches and he spills his coffee—not on himself, but on the lady sitting next to him, which turns out to be (who else?) Elise Sellas, Miss Kissyface from the men's room. Banter turns to flirting as Norris's shitty little Blackberry keeps ringing. At one point, Sellas plops it in his coffee. It keeps ringing. "Sturdy little fucker, isn't it?" she says.

Norris, insistent that he pay for the dry-cleaning of Elise's java-stained skirt, gets her phone number (she chides him mercilessly for resorting to such a crude pickup technique). Eventually, the bus stops and she gets off. Norris stands in the doorway of the bus, unsure what to say to this mystery-woman that keeps materializing in his life. "The morning after I lost the election I woke up thinking about you," he blurts out. As the bus starts to go, Elise smiles sadly and gives him the finger.

For me, this was the magic lock-in moment when writer-director Nolfi had me in leg irons; I was "all in" from that point on. I'm still trying to figure out who came up with the idea of Sellas suddenly flipping Norris the bird. It's not in the screenplay (nor in the disappointingly brief Philip K. Dick short story upon which the movie is based). I'm guessing Matt Damon and Emily Blunt worked out the sequence on their own. Whoever thought of it, it was brilliant. The awkwardness, the sexual tension, the prospect of something meaningful suddenly and unexpectedly leapfrogging mere infatuation (with all the emotional panic that that entails—who the hell wants to mess up something sweet and spontaneous with True Love? "Read my finger" indeed), came off as believable and compelling.

Norris arrives at his new job (at an investment banking firm; the consolation prize for losing a Senate race, apparently) and says hi to people as he walks by, unaware that everyone is frozen rock-solid. He arrives in a conference room to find agent (adjuster) Richardson there with some other suits, one of whom is waving an electronic wand over a frozen coworker. There's a moment of confusion as the "adjusters" try to understand how Norris is moving, talking, able to see them. (This is practically the only part of the movie that's true to the Philip K. Dick story.) Richardson orders his men to grab Norris. A Bourne-style chase scene ensues. Director Nolfi is now firmly in his element.

Norris eventually wakes up to find Richardson explaining to him that he (Norris) stumbled into something he wasn't supposed to witness and would therefore have to be "reset." Norris lilstens in horror as Richardson and his fellow suits talk about the situation, the need to "reset" him. A higher-ranking suit suddenly arrives and calls off the reset; there's a suit bitch-fight. Eventually it's revealed to Norris that he went "off Plan," and that the job of the suits is to make the rare but occasionally necessary random adjustments that keep people "on Plan." Norris will go free, but only on the condition that he not reveal the existence of the agents (or a "Plan") to anyone, lest he be "reset." Before he's allowed to leave, Norris is forced to give the slip of paper with Elise's phone number to Richardson, who (as a horrified Norris looks on) sets it ablaze. "You weren't ever supposed to see her again," Richardson explains. Instead of meeting her on the bus that morning, Norris was to have spilled coffee on his shirt and gone back to his apartment to change.

It's made abundantly clear to Norris that if he ever tries to connect with Elise Sellas again, he'll be reset: his memory erased, his life gone, back to square zero (or wherever you go when you're reset).

At this point in the film, I'm solidly hooked. I'm in it now for the love angle (I want to see how Norris and Sellas reconnect) and I'm in it for the sci-fi angle (I want to see Neo/Norris fight the Matrix/Plan and win out over the agents). Director Nolfi has me watching a goddam angel movie. The little bitch.

Norris will, of course, veer way Off Plan to find the woman of his dreams, and Elise will eventually have to be told about The Plan. Waves of new agents will have to track Norris down like a dog, and they'll be thwarted, by turns, necessitating successive levels of escalation. Eventually, sinister super-adjuster Thompson (expertly played by Terence Stamp) will take over. But Norris has a surprise ally in Mitchell, the rank-and-file case worker who flubbed the original coffee-spill errand. It turns out angels sometimes want to defect.

This is an ingenious inversion of the angel myth, portraying angels as bumbling functionaries with their own personal foibles, answering to a hands-off Higher Authority that stays in the background until direct intervention is unavoidable. It turns out there is, after all, a Plan, but it's not perfect, and humans regularly stray from it, requiring tiny "butterfly effect" perturbations that bring things back into alignment. But wait a minute, if angels can read minds and anticipate the future, why can't they just prevent excursions in the first place? Mitchell explains to Norris matter-of-factly: "We lack the manpower to be all places at all times." Adjustments have to be just-in-time/just-enough. Adjusters operate on a need-to-know basis, in a command structure that resembles that of an intelligence organization—or perhaps a large software system, where encapsulation and delegation are strictly enforced to prevent unwanted intimacy between objects, while exceptions bubble up through a call hierarchy.

This is a superbly crafted drama in which the final act leads right where you know it has to lead—to the Ultimate Authority. I don't want to give away the ending. I'll say this: It obeys every good rule of screenwriting, every ironclad rule of storytelling (e.g., making things go from dire to impossibly bad, even when things can't get any worse), but without resorting to the deus-ex-machina ending you're absolutely convinced has to be coming.

A story that can keep you guessing until the very end is rare. Philip K. Dick would, I think, be proud.