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Sorta sums up how certain people are going to react to this movie. They are mostly wrong, though.
The Adjustment Bureau is a fairly together romantic fantasy thriller. People are going into it expecting science fiction as opposed to a quasi-agnostic representation of God and His angels which is going to disappoint them. Fortunately, this is a well made movie with a sense of humor, terrific leads, and an overall benevolent attitude toward fate and love and cosmic forces. It’s an optimistic movie that’s being sold maybe a shade or two darker than it actually is. So go in knowing that it’s fairly toothless (but not in a bad way) and fully, almost ridiculously invested in the central romance.
The titular Bureau is a tiered organization of agents who use magic hats and various unspecific technological artifacts, including books with lines and symbols representing people’s choices and paths through life, to “adjust” reasoning along certain preordained lines. These agents are basically angels and their Chairman is God. They admit to only being called this from time to time but a bureaucratic representation of heavenly forces is obviously the operating model here. What is interesting about them is that they haven’t always controlled free will. At times they have backed off to see what we can do on our own and each time we have fucked things up. They came back in most recently in the 60’s after the Cuban Missile Crisis. This explains why they look, talk, and organize themselves like a mix between G-men and Mad Men. It’s a nice touch that is more implied than outright settled by exposition in the film, which further indicates the level of thought that went behind seemingly arbitrary aesthetic choices like the environments these characters operate in, what they call themselves, and how they dress.
Anyway, the plot of the film involves a young upstart politician (Matt Damon) for whom the Chairman has big plans. He meets a spirited woman (Emily Blunt) who inspires him to deliver a career-rebooting concession speech. He is never supposed to meet her again, but does, and one of those soul-mate type loves blooms in both of them. He meets her again because one of the Bureau guys was literally sleeping on the job. Harry’s a tired guy, attached to Norris (Damon) for years and identifying with him more than his encouraged among his kind. Another side-effect of this is that Norris gets to his office a bit early while they are adjusting his friend and colleague. This means they have to either lobotomize him (which even they can’t do lightly) or let him see behind the curtain with the warning that they will fuck up his brain if he goes around talking about them.
From there Norris’s life becomes about the conflict between true love and political accomplishment as directed by the Bureau. He chooses love readily (and fuck them) until he learns what the consequences are for both of them. If they stay together, he’ll fail as a politician and she’ll never be the great dancer she could be. As a result of what he knows, he is forced to pull away from Elise (Blunt) even though he doesn’t want to. How their relationship spreads across years is a bit jarring but ultimately reflects the weightiness of what Norris has learned. He is unable to make the decision for both of them up until the moment where he’s about to lose her forever. This is standard romantic plot shit and causes part of the third act to feel a bit rote. That said, it is offset by an excellent chase sequence which (like many things about this movie) reminds one of The Matrix. In fact, The Adjustment Bureau is sort of a weird cousin of The Matrix. Like its cuter, more friendly and life-loving kin from some brighter part of the world.
The political stuff is refreshing, giving the movie an undercurrent of optimism that runs from brain to heart. It’s really that David Norris is such a stand-up guy that centers everything and makes his crusade o’ love relatable. Mostly, though, it’s the philosophical conflict between free will and fate that seems to be what the film is most concerned with. I don’t think it’s very deep about this and ultimately part of the literally deus ex machina ending’s slight disappointment is in the lack of central resolution for this conflict. Essentially, David and Elise get to stay together because they “risked it all”. That kind of sentiment is present in every type of romantic movie already so I would have liked something more interesting in the supertext of the film.
The subtext, though, gave me what I needed. The real conflict is between types of fulfillment. David and Elise both have extensive psychological reasons for being the type of people they are. They both yearn for something, and this yearning defines their lives. Unlike most people (I imagine) they have each found a calling which supplies this fulfillment but is also at risk by the fulfillment each represents to the other. So that is to say: whatever void exists inside them can be filled by the other person which makes their accomplishment-oriented (he’s a politician and she’s a dancer, both are destined for greatness if apart) passions moot. As Harry, the sympathetic Bureau agent, says to Norris: “She’s enough, David”.
This conflict is interesting to me. Nowadays it seems young women are reacting to the traditional “a woman needs a man” mentality still espoused by many parents and typified by the older generations. The reaction seems to contain a need to assert independence from needing a significant other. I understand this but I have to hand it to a movie that completely rejects this position and says, in certain and confident terms, that sometimes another person does make you whole. It’s an extremely romantic notion and maybe not exactly rational but the movie is largely about having the courage to pursue that kind of wholeness or fulfillment whatever the price.
It’s the extreme stories that give us an exemplary version of what we seek in everyday life. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever be trying to outsmart and outrun smartly dressed angels who are trying to keep me from my life, but this is just a metaphor. I hope that I have the recognition and follow-through required to choose love over accomplishment and that is ultimately what the movie is all about.
I can’t believe this movie was on my radar for so long without me having watched it. Well, I finally did, and it blew my tentative anticipation away. Mr. Nobody is an existential masterpiece, effortlessly blending together complex philosophical themes, entrancing emotional odysseys, and what seems like a dozen versions of the same character to create a pseudo-Science Fiction film that is a cousin to many, but an imitation of none.
The plot, such as it is, navigates layers of fantasy, memory, and narrative reality to tell the story of Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto), an 118 year old man about to die in the year 2092. He happens to be the last living mortal human, and his story is of great interest to everyone. Especially since very little is known about him and there’s no record of his life. Is Nemo the fabrication of a younger version of himself, who writes science fiction as a teen? Is Old Nemo the real one, the point from which all this emanates? The film doesn’t tell you and like whether or not Cobb is dreaming in Inception, it doesn’t really matter. You can believe the story about the Angels of Oblivion and Nemo’s ability to predict the future, or you can chalk it up to cycles of expansion and entropy. The film invites both metaphysical and hard science foundations on which to explore the themes.
It’s very difficult to write a review for this film. I almost need to watch it again. I can say that it’s a mistake to approach it as a “puzzle movie” or one that needs to be “figured out”. A lot of people will go into it like that. They’ll wonder, as the young journalist wonders, which of the stories Nemo Nobody tells is the “true” one. As Nemo himself says when confronted with this, “Every path is the right path.” which is to say that life doesn’t have a “true version” but can pick itself up and carry itself off in any direction imaginable.
It’s as much to examine our tendency toward focusing on big, sweeping moments of change than on just how chaotic every single moment really is, that causes Jaco Van Dormael to use three specific points in Nemo’s life as the internal reference points through which we can examine regret, choice, and chance. The film acknowledges that every moment is another chance for everything to change, the specific points of time that have so impacted Nemo are such because they involve formative relationships with his parents and with the three possible women he could spend his life with. It is especially in these relationships, which are all varied and reflect on the man Nemo could become, that we understand why Old Nemo can’t settle on one version. Imagined, predicted, or somehow lived… all three possibilities (and even more variances in each) lead Nemo, and the viewer, down a different path.
The suggestion is that whatever we choose, life is going to happen to us. That seems simplistic but the film is smart enough to tackle the choice vs. chance question. Otherwise you might be left with a tangled web of “is this determined or not?” which is sort of the point of the Angels of Oblivion/Precognitive thing. In other words, the film deals with the choice vs. chance binary in the same way Nemo deals with the question of which life is the true life: the only viable move is to not move. Which is kind of like taking the third option, I guess, as evidenced by 9 year old Nemo who runs off into the country rather than choosing Father or Mother.
Anyway, you need to see this movie. I can’t properly review it. It’s the kind of thing you have to sit down and explore with someone and I was dumb enough to watch it alone. The only other thing I want to say is that philosophically rich stuff like this only comes around every so often. Not to mention that the film, while dense, is very entertaining and also funny in a detached sort of way. It looks good, every performance is moving, and it will leave you feeling uplifted and hungry for life.