Friday, March 11, 2011

“The Adjustment Bureau” – Playing the “What If…” game.

At one time or another, we’ve all wondered what would have happened had we made different choices. What if I hadn’t broken up with that girl? What if I had stayed in school? What if I had taken that job in Texas? My wife and I like to ask those questions and wonder if things would still have ended up the same way. My idea of heaven contains a building where you can find out the answers to those questions. Imagine a room with a giant screen showing your life in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” format. The idea isn’t to brood over what could have been, but simply to satisfy one’s curiosity. I know what you might be thinking, and no, I don’t hate my life. I love my life and wouldn’t trade it for any other outcome. I’m just a very curious person and am simply interested to know how many different ways things might have turned out. In a nutshell, that is the plot of The Adjustment Bureau, but from a different angle.

David Norris (Matt Damon) is a young politician on the rise who finds himself on the wrong end of a Senate election after the publication of an incriminating photo. While considering his concession speech, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt) and they share a life-altering kiss before being separated by circumstance. David is inspired and improvises a new speech that puts him back on the road to political glory. Fast forward some months and we find two mysterious men, Harry (Anthony Mackie) and Richardson (John Slattery), plotting to make sure David spills coffee on himself before 7:05 A.M. Harry nods off, failing the task. This causes two things to happen: a chance meeting between David and Elise on a bus where they reconnect, and David walking in on Richardson and the mysterious crew making changes to a frozen scene in David’s office. This is where the movie really gets interesting and where I explain my earlier comment about “a different angle.”

After a quick chase through the building, David is captured and taken to an empty warehouse. Richardson explains that they are the ones who make sure everyone’s lives unfold according to The Plan. Their purpose is to make adjustments if they see things beginning to run off the predestined path, hence the moniker “Adjustment Bureau.” David is given this information under the condition that he never reveals the bureau’s existence under the penalty of being lobotomized. As an additional condition, he is not allowed to contact Elise ever again – because it’s not part of The Plan. At that point, David is free to go and play the “what if…” game. The different angle is that the members of the bureau do everything they can to take David’s choices away and tell him what will happen if he chooses to be with Elise.

The elegance of this movie is in the way that it unfolds. When we get our first peek at Harry’s book, The Plan looks like a black and white maze with a running blue line, a running green line, and red circles. It reveals nothing about The Plan, but is enough to satisfy the audience’s curiosity. We don’t need the details – we just need to know what is good and bad and what is urgent. This satisfying vagueness continues with mention of The Chairman, whom we never meet, an allusion to angels, and the doorway system that is a giant shortcut system for the bureau to move quickly around the city. All of these things point to multiple conclusions, but leave it up to audience interpretation. Are we seeing a story about God and his plan? Are they aliens meddling in human affairs? Are they a secret government agency that’s existed for millennia? The beauty of the film is it allows you to choose your own adventure without turning into a mess of unanswered questions.

I also like to think the director and producers played a little game of “What If…” to create this film. At some point, they probably wrestled with the choices I just went through. Regardless of the outcome of the romantic piece of the story, showing us The Chairman (I’ve heard they actually filmed this in an alternate ending) would have devalued the film. I’m sure they also played the game with the casting. Blunt and Damon were perfect for these roles, but who else auditioned? Angelina Jolie would have completely ruined the film and we’d all be rooting for Tom Cruise to earn the lobotomy. And who would have played The Chairman? I won’t even speculate because anyone – human or not – would have been bad.

Everything about this film was great, but the thing that stands out most is that it is unpredictable. While watching it, you will find yourself playing along with the “What If…” game by trying to guess how it’s going to end because, unlike most movies, the ending isn’t a foregone conclusion. What if the bureau succeeds? What if David talks about the bureau? What if their path hits a red circle? What is the consequence of David and Elise staying together? What if there’s a lot more that I could tell you?

Rating: One of the few movies that is worth more than the price of admission. That’s the only question I’ll answer.

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