Philip K. Dick’s back catalog of paranoid insanity is sadly becoming easy pickings for Hollywood’s drought of ideas. While Blade Runner and Minority Report have become classics for one reason or another, films like Paycheck and Next make fans almost ashamed of their beloved Dick. The general problem is that few truly understand the complex and sometimes schizophrenic nature of the material. Most films attempt to simplify it, which changes it into something else entirely. And then it doesn’t work.
The Adjustment Bureau could have been a complete toss-up. Showcased in this story is Dick’s paranoid view of the world around him, how there is a second layer discretely manipulating the first layer. Whether it is a shadow conspiracy or the hand of God does not matter. What matters is that people are not noticing. What matters is that people are having their choices nullified and reduced to insignificance. A world like that causes existential angst. It’s nihilism based not on a lack of reward but on lack of involvement instead.
Hats off to writer/director George Nolfi for capturing the somewhat off tone of a Dick story. PKD tends to go all over the place when he writes. Is this story SF, drama, an absurdist comedy, or something else? The film managed to most notably weave together the speculative fiction narrative with the romantic dramedy quite spectacularly, but little has been mentioned in the reviews about the absurdity. For that we need to look at the plot:
Matt Damon’s David Norris fails in his campaign for the senate due to the leak of an embarrassing photo. While preparing his concession speech, he meets Emily Blunt’s Elise in the men’s bathroom (she was hiding because she was caught wedding crashing the building). They talk, they kiss, and she inspires David to be as honest as possible in his concession speech – which proves to everyone that he is indeed a man of the people and for the people. They are never supposed to see each other again.
That is until they do. The caseworker assigned to keep David’s life on plan, Harry, oversleeps on a park bench and fails to prevent a coincidental meeting between David and Elise on the bus. Their interests are resparked, but beyond that David arrives at work 10 minutes before plan and finds a team of individuals psychically prepping his workmates. He is chased throughout his office building by a bemused Richardson (portrayed by Mad Men‘s John Slattery), who eventually captures him and simply levels with him.
And that’s the first act. Instead of altering the politician’s memory so none of it happened, he tells him the truth. The Adjustment Bureau is tasked by an individual known as the Chairman to help keep people on track. All of their lives are planned out and occasional adjustments need to be made to keep each of them on track. Random phone calls, spilled drinks, missed taxis, and traffic hold-ups are but some of the tricks they use to keep people on course – although sometimes those things just happen anyway. There are often times when individuals need greater adjustments, such as David’s workmate and best friend’s needing his reasoning adjusted to agree with David’s push for solar power in their company. Richardson explains this very calmly to him, with a little bit of a shush and a mention that he is never supposed to be with Elise.
That never happens in movies. Not so bluntly. Not so suddenly. This is commonplace in the works of Philip K. Dick. “Oh, guess what! Reality is a lie! Now, with a pat on the tush, be on your way.” The topsy-turvy happening is actually matter-of-fact.
What many storytellers get wrong with reveals such as these is a focus on the revealing event itself. You might have noticed that television series are often built around a series of reveals, often right before a commercial break or at the very end of an episode. These are jokingly called WHAM moments because they soundly smack the viewer in the face by being unexpected. This can be good storytelling, but a reliance on this sort of thing requires a sadly ADD audience who sadly just want to see things happen and not think about them.
Reveals only go so far, though. What is more important to the story is the character, and so the reveal needs to have some sort of significance to the character. In the case of this film, David has been allowed a peek behind the curtain of reality as he knows it. Now he has to live with that fact every day of his life. No wonder why he admits later in the movie that he has stopped putting effort into his speeches. Not only is he guaranteed to succeed according to the written plan, but he has seen the world beyond his world. Everything becomes meaningless then. Except for Elise.
The Love Story
To be honest, I was not looking forward to the romantic element when going into the movie. Most romance plots in movies tend to be heavy-handed, poorly written, and trite. In fact, The Adjustment Bureau is undoubtedly guilty of these things. When David begins fighting for his right to choose to be with Elise, the dialog Damon is forced to spit out with his immeasurable talent is the same trite, needy whining that viewers have heard before. It doesn’t matter that it was Matt Damon saying it about Emily Blunt. It was the same as when Hayden Christianson said it about Natalie Portman. It was bad and made the characters look bad.
But an interesting element added to the romance plot was the fact that while the two were not currently meant to be together in their individual plans, there were previously many versions of their plans that definitely plotted them together. Their plans have been revised several times, with many plans intending for them to be together. The reason David and Elise feel like they belong together is because they are essentially wired to be together, and there are remnants of those strings of fate floating around and causing them to continually feel like they ought to be together. Some might say this makes the romance somehow less romantic. I think it adds meaning to the plot – not to mention the fact that it’s just an interesting idea.
David develops a friendly relationship with his caseworker, Anthony Mackie’s Harry. In one exchange he simplifies the concept of the caseworker for the audience. He calls Harry an angel. From there it can be inferred that the Chairman is God. This sets the stage for the film’s ultimate confrontation of man’s free will versus God’s omnipotent predetermination.
Except Harry says, “No. Think of me more like a caseworker.” This is important. While it was necessary for David to establish some level of understanding for the general audience to grasp, it was more important that Harry dismiss it. There is no religious analog for the Bureau. Harry is not an angel, and the Chairman is not God. There is an ambiguity there because this is a level of existence that we do not understand.
A friend of mine with whom I saw the film said, “Yeah, they did that because they do not want to offend people.” That is clearly missing the point. Any religion attached to the Bureau upon watching the movie is an assumption made by the viewer. They are no more angels than they are spirits helping to perpetuate the Buddhist cycle of death and rebirth. They could even be extra-dimensional beings tasked with keeping our world in one piece. The important thing here is what they tell us, not what we assume. There really wasn’t enough information otherwise to make an informed guess about what they really are. And that is OK. Fictional realities should be allowed aspects outside of our immediate understanding.
The Third Act
The third act is where the film starts to fall apart. What was building itself as a moral thriller devolves into a pseudo-action story. David and Harry discuss their being disenchanted with their roles in life and how they want to break free of the system. Harry provides David with his magical hat that activates the magical teleportational door system so that he can steal Elise back from her fiance and live happily in their free will. This reduces the final part of the film to a mere chase sequence based on one simple concept – the door system is really cool. (We know that. We watched Scott Pilgrim.) There is no other reason for this, which is why it appears very weak.
The end sees David and Elise cornered on the roof of the tallest building in New York. There is no escape save for deus ex machina – which Harry provides in the form of the Chairman’s letter and the new plan for David and Elise. David has impressed the Chairman so much that there is no longer a plan. David and Elise can write their own future. Warm fuzzies and a happy ending for all. The film was about choices and their consequences in the grand scheme. The tension is resolved now that David can live a life in which he may not become President and make the world a better place.
The Weight of the Resolution
What I love about reading Philip K. Dick stories is that the ending often involves a tough decision. When the absurd truth is revealed, what does the protagonist do? Despite my professed love for the Minority Report film, I am often questioned for loathing the simplistic resolution. The film presents the precogs as slaves for an easily corrupted system that must be taken down by Tom Cruise. In the original short story, the only minority report generated is for the person reading the reports – he is the only one who actually has a choice. The decision he has to make in the end is to murder someone to prove that the system is not flawed, reality is predetermined, and thus ending crime forever; or to avoid murdering someone, stay out of prison, let people feel better about free will versus determinism, let the system fall apart, and allow rampant murder. There’s no weight to a story that ends with choices that make the viewer/reader feel better.
This is the problem with The Adjustment Bureau‘s ending. The easy solution involves giving into the romantic notion that love is all that matters. To repeat what I bring up every time I encounter a romantic comedy, the only reason these films exist is to perpetuate the idea of true love and get men laid. This film was no different. All that mattered in the resolution was the unification of the two lovers who felt that they were meant to be together. There was no difficulty in the decision. With the erasure of the plans for them, there was no consequence. It was sappy and weak.
Leading up to this, David had encountered another agent, Terrance Stamp’s Thompson, who said that the plans revealed being with Elise would be considered enough and ruin David’s chance at the Presidency. Additionally, David’s presence in Elise’s life would lead to her inability to achieve her dream as a dancer and choreographer. While the fate of not achieving dreams is quite disappointing, it is not enough to convince most people to not be with people they love. Plenty of people are satisfied with being happy instead of successful.
I can’t help but think that there was more to the story than what viewers have found on the screen. Not only is David the people’s President, but he was involved in a company that was pushing for solar power. David was pushing for alternative energy and perhaps a safer planet. It is also explained to David that one of the reasons for keeping people on plan is because allowing rampant free will caused the Dark Ages, as well as the series of conflicts known as World War I, the Holocaust, World War II, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fortunately, the Adjustment Bureau came aboard to avert additional catastrophe. So I have to ask what David’s dodging of his plan will do to the world.
That could imply that David and Elise’s selfish actions could lead to another world conflict or dark age. David may never reach the Senate, nor may he reach the Presidency. Solar power could be completely abandoned, and the world could die in a nuclear meltdown. David may have led to a war’s being avoided. Elise’s dance could have inspired countless individuals to explore themselves through the arts and find new peaceful resolutions for differences. Maybe David and Elise did not make the right decision.
But the horrors of the future are hand waved aside by the Chairman’s blank plan. This means that the future is ambiguous, but the framing of the blank plan’s presentation means that it is a hopeful ambiguity. Instead of being damned for their choices, they are rewarded with the opportunity to build their future. Instead of chiding them for discarding the opportunity to be notable, they are being told they could be anything. There was no sacrifice. The ending was disappointingly simplistic.
I hate when people say what they would have done with a movie to make it better. That said, I can’t help but think the whole experience could have been improved with one more scene at the end. Cut to 20 years in the future. David and Elise are hiding in a bunker during a loud and furious war rages. A group of individuals from the Adjustment Bureau appear and walk over to David. One of them says, “You could have been President.” End scene.
The Magical Negro
It needs to be said that the only black person in the film is also the only one who wants to go against the plan and teaches everyone a valuable lesson about free will. This is one of those tropes that seemingly will never die.
Did I like it?
Despite my serious displeasure with the romantic dramedy ending, absolutely. The film successfully crafted a rich world consisting of two layers of reality. There was a strong conflict present that, while not satisfyingly concluded, was incredibly intriguing. And that’s to say nothing for the acting, which was stunning all around. I believed the romance that was brewing. I believed in the “same shit, different day” mentality of the caseworkers. It was definitely a good film.