Saturday, March 5, 2011

Matt Damon and the Fedora of Fate

It seems Matt Damon is a movie star. I hadn't realized audiences would go to a film to see him until I was in line for Adjustment Bureau and heard someone ask for "Two for the Matt Damon movie." Since he won his Academy Award as a writer, I approve.

Adjustment Bureau is based on a short story by master science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, who wrote the stories Blade RunnerMinority Report and Total Recall (and many others) were based on. I'm currently taking a class on Dick (okay, poor word choice), so I've read a lot of his work, including the short "Adjustment Team" this was based on. The Adjustment Bureau doesn't really have much to do with that story, and in significant ways, it has nothing to do with Dick's writing in general (He didn't write romance). However, I felt that the pieces of this film worked and I solidly enjoyed the movie. So far, it's the best of this year.

Some spoilers follow, so be warned if you choose to read on.

Adjustment Bureau sees Damon playing David Norris, a New York congressman running for senate. He meets a woman, Elise (Emily Blunt), on the night he looses the election, who he falls in love with. He is watched by an Adjustment Team, Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) and Richardson (John Slattery) who are responsible making sure things go according to The Plan. The Plan doesn't involve Norris ever seeing Elise again, but when Mitchell fails to make Norris spill his morning coffee, Norris not only meets Elise again, but also arrives at his office to find Richardson in the process of altering his co-worker's minds. As the trailer states, he's seen behind a curtain he wasn't supposed to know existed.

To the film's credit, it doesn't mess around with the mystery of who is pulling the strings or what is happening. Instead, Richardson sits Norris down and explains the situation to him, and tells him they can erase his brain if he tells anyone. This point is the most similar to the "Adjustment Team" short and I liked it. If some secret organization of guys in suits told me they controlled the world and would erase me if I told anyone, I'd keep my mouth shut. Too many stories that feature a character discovering the "secret powers" seem to forget that those "secret powers" could probably just buy the character off.

The film plays with the ideas of Fate with a capital "F" and the Adjustment Team is a really-not-even-concealed metaphor for angels, with their controlling "The Chairman" being almost explicitly stated as God (I believe the phase the film used was "You know him by many names" or something similarly blatant). Of course the religious connotations is one of the more Dickian aspects of the film, who often dealt with religion in his books.

What worked: 
- The bureaucratic Adjustment Team. They might be the shadowy powers that run the world, but they have lines like "We don't have approval to do that" and "I'm going to send this case upstairs to someone else."
- Surprisingly, most of the romance. I was worried this would be the unbearable Hollywood part of the film, but the relationship between Damon and Blunt's characters felt real and wasn't too forced (until the very end).
- Hats. Don't trust anyone that wears one. It was almost cheesy, but also felt perfect in a story from an author who wrote about characters devoting their lives to Barbie dolls or getting sued by their front door.
Jon Stewart cameo. A scene features Norris appearing on The Daily Show. Always a plus.

What didn't: 
- The generic sci-fi elements. The hats worked, partly because it was kind of ridiculous. "Water blocks our powers" and "We can't think creatively like you" seemed like lazy writing. It's the kind of stuff we've seen
- Ending with a chase scene. Because it's a sci-fi movie so it has to have a chase scene. And the whole "Love conquers all and The Chairman changed the plan" was obvious and not particularly original.

Still, despite stumbling at the end, this was a surprisingly intelligent and fun movie. I genuinely enjoyed and found that the light, almost rom-com moments kept the film from falling into the serious bleakness that a lot of "good" sci-fi falls into. So, The Adjustment Bureau takes the top spot on my 2011 film list, at least for now. 

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