Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

The Adjustment Bureau

Jerry Stratton, August 30, 2011

If you expect to see The Adjustment Bureau, don’t read this review. I’ve got a lot of spoilers here, but I don’t think they matter, because you aren’t going to like this movie. If you enjoy the first part, you won’t enjoy the second; if you enjoy the second, you’ll find the first part annoyingly weird.

David Norris is a New York congressman running for United States Senate. He’s a young man with a promising future and a bit of a reckless past. Nothing major, but it’s enough to derail his Senate bid when his frat party photos are published the morning of the election. It’s pretty obvious from the first returns that he’s not even going to win on his home turf, so he retires to a hotel bathroom to write his concession speech.

After working for a long time on the speech, he realizes he’s not alone in the bathroom. Turns out a woman is in one of the stalls. She’s hiding from hotel security because she crashed a wedding party. They immediately bond; they are clearly meant for each other. And then hotel security finds her and she runs and he is never going to see her again. All he knows is her first name, and there are a lot of Elises in the world.

He scraps his speech, and gives an impromptu Jerry Maguire-style speech about how marketing has taken over politics. From the snippets we get to see, it’s a very good speech. It’s a speech that would be very difficult to deliver without a teleprompter or divine inspiration.

He doesn’t have a teleprompter. His giving that speech is part of the divine plan, both for him and for Elise. Elise was inspired to dare herself to crash the wedding party, so that she would inspire him to tell important truths in his concession. He would then go on to make a successful run for the Senate in the next go-round, make a name for himself there, and eventually win the presidency, and his brand of truth would push the world a little bit further from world war and nuclear destruction. Elise would lead an emotionally troubled life but this would inspire her to become one of the world’s great dancers, and then pass on her inspiration to others as one of the world’s great choreographers.

That’s the divine plan for both of them.

The problem is that this isn’t the only divine plan. There’s an older plan in which they were meant for each other. They complete each other, and when they meet they live a quiet, loving life together in which each of them fills the need of the other for greatness. He doesn’t become a great politician, and she does not become a great dancer. They live for each other instead of for the world.

There are still pieces of that other plan lying around, and an angel’s screwup allows the older plan to bubble up from the streets of New York. On a day when David was supposed to go back to his apartment for a new shirt, the angel doesn’t spill coffee on him and he gets on the bus on the time schedule of the old plan rather than the new one—and he meets Elise again. But he also gets to work early enough to see the divine plan in operation: angels in fifties suits adjusting a friend’s mind to support rather than oppose a company business decision.

Over the course of the movie, David finds out about the two plans, and what they mean both for him and Elise. The angels threaten him to follow the new plan, but they’re angels, not devils, and are limited in how seriously they can threaten him. The choice is really up to him: what does he do with this knowledge?

Reading that synopsis, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that this is based on a Philip K. Dick story. That story was “Adjustment Team”. Unfortunately, the movie starts off strong but ends weak. The Adjustment Bureau asks some very big questions, and then totally punts on them in the last third of the movie.

How important is individual happiness compared to a safe world? David’s future in the master plan is one where he acts as a balance to corrupt and focus-grouped politicians. His future is one of successfully promoting world peace. Yes, being a politician who makes a difference is his dream, but his being a politician also moves the world incrementally away from total destruction. That’s his place in the chairman’s plan. Is following a divine plan to the detriment of your own personal plans a worthy endeavor? They punt on this question in favor of a door chase. He never grapples with it, and the movie never addresses it.

What sacrifices are necessary and worthy between two people who love each other? They set it up so that both David and Elise will be giving up great futures if they choose to have a relationship. David will not be president, and Elise will not be a world-renowned dancer and then influential choreographer, because their drive will disappear once they complete each other. David initially leaves Elise because he doesn’t want her to lose her dream. But several months later he doesn’t think of her dream at all. He talks only of his own dream, and whether his own dream matters. Maybe he’s just being a selfish politician, but it punts on the real question that was set up: how important are both their dreams?

What is the nature of free will? The future that David is fighting for against the “plan” that the chairman’s people are pushing is itself just another plan. David’s “free will” is to fight for a discarded plan, not for any real choice of his own. He doesn’t want to throw off his shackles. He just wants an older model. That issue was barely addressed; it was presented merely as a technical explanation for how chance kept fouling up the chairman’s current plan. As presented, however, that presents a powerful question about the nature of free will in a planned world.

The movie was a disappointment because it initially risked asking these questions, but just gave up. Which is too bad, because it took a very short story with lots of ideas but very little plot, and did a very good job translating it into a movie with a narrative and very good acting. It’s as if the end of The Matrix was just Trinity and Neo settling down in the suburbs inside their computer simulation.

Somewhat random thought: They know there’s a god. They know that this god takes an active part in human affairs and has a master plan for the world. They know this god can be petitioned to alter the master plan. They don’t need faith for this, they’ve seen it first hand.

  1. <- Battle of Middle Britain
  2. The Last Dragon ->