Another fortnight gone by, and GitM is behind the curve once again: Clearly keeping up to date around here isn’t part of “The Plan” at the moment. At any rate, some quick thoughts on George Nolfi’s Twilight Zone romance, The Adjustment Bureau, which I caught awhile ago.
In brief, I found myself enjoying The Adjustment Bureau, even though many elements of this story really have no business working. For one, its basic conceit — supernatural Organization Men have a Plan for all of humankind, and the meet-cute and subsequent romance of Senate candidate Matt Damon and ballerina Emily Blunt just isn’t in Their Cards — flirts dangerously with both Touched By An Angel and Bagger Vance territory at times. (As Damon’s guardian angel and eventual angel-buddy, The Hurt Locker‘s Anthony Mackie gets stuck with the thankless Will Smith role here.) And, to be sure, all the quasi-religious meanderings here get a bit cloying after awhile. (Every time somebody namedrops “the Chairman” of this spiritual bureaucracy, I half-expected Morgan Freeman to pop up in the final act.)
For another, while I understand Bureau is based loosely on a 1954 Phillip K. Dick story — I haven’t read it, but it sounds quite different — parts of the film seem decidedly retro, and I’m not just talking about the fedoras. At one point, one of the sternest Men With Hats (Terrence Stamp) talks of how giving free will to humankind ultimately led to the Dark Ages — Well, ok, that’s a cautionary tale…if you’re Western European. Meanwhile, as a friend pointed out, Arabs are inventing algebra, and the Chinese are doing just fine, thank you very much.
That’s a passing irritation. But more problematic here is Emily Blunt’s retrograde character, who is passive to a fault: She doesn’t actually do anything in this story but look fetching and wait for Damon to call the shots. (At one point, three lost years go by because Damon loses Blunt’s phone number. Really? She couldn’t call him?) Now, I’m all for a guy going the extra mile to win the girl of his dreams — Say, Sam Lowry chasing down Jill in Brazil, or Luke braving the Death Star to rescue the pre-sororital princess in Star Wars. But, in those cases, Jill basically thinks Sam is a loon, and treats him as much, while Leia realizes pretty quickly that her rescuers haven’t put a lot of thought into their escape plan.
In other words, I find romances more engaging and, well, romantic when there’s more back-and-forth between the pair involved, like, to take just a few examples, Alvy and Annie in Annie Hall, Tom and Verna in Miller’s Crossing, or any of the couples in Stanley Cavell’s “comedies of remarriage” (and their spiritual descendant, Eternal Sunshine.) But Emily Blunt barely participates in this story. She’s less a character than an object of desire to keep the story rolling along. For all intent and purposes, she’s just the Maguffin.
Now, having said all that, why am I still recommending The Adjustment Bureau? Well, chemistry goes a long way, and if nothing else Damon and Blunt have are convincing together. They’re a cute couple, even if they have to slog their way through some seriously terrible plot points at times. (For example, the angels make it clear that this duo’s romance will be irrevocably set in stone if Damon sees Blunt dancing. That in itself is cheesy enough, and it’s not helped by the fact that the herky-jerky Blunt happens to dance like Elaine Benes.)
Plus, while the “Mad Men angels” conceit starts to bog down under its own weight in the second half of the movie, and particularly when Damon’s personal Clarence starts enumerating all kinds of new random rules — angels need their hats, they can’t stand water, doorknobs have to be turned clockwise — just so we can have a big chase scene finale, the first hour or so is still intriguing and sci-fi enough that it held my attention even when the story faltered.
Let me put it this way: About twenty minutes in, The Adjustment Bureau has one of those scenes where, while addressing a large audience at a hugely important moment, Senate-wannabe Matt Damon rips up the remarks he was giving and starts ad-libbing, because, you know, he just can’t give that pre-prepared speech right now — It’s time to keep it real. From Up in the Air to Traffic, this is one of the hoariest and most cornball cliches in the movies, and it takes me out of the flow every time. And, yet, even with groaners like this, I still found myself mostly enjoying The Adjustment Bureau by the end. For all its faults, it’s a low-key, goofy, and amiable time at the movies. Who knows? Perhaps I was just predestined to like it.