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‘The Adjustment Bureau’ as Romantic Comedy

by Bob Lalasz on March 6, 2011


I know; it would have taken the courage required to land at Normandy Beach even to have gone into a development meeting with the idea. But Ebert is right about “The Adjustment Bureau” it’s a romantic comedy trapped inside existential hokum, and it was an audience rights violation not to let it out. This could have been one of the films of the decade — the paranoid screwball comedy that “A Scanner Darkly” never was — but instead we got Sisyphus in a grey flannel suit. Imagine a movie that gives John Slatterly its best lines and then keeps him out of the conclusion and you understand how this happened, or didn’t happen.

Still, “The Adjustment Bureau” is worth seeing for how simple banter can create a sexual force field between characters played by actors as seemingly ill-matched as Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. David Thomson wrote a column for Salon almost 10 years ago about the death of talk as seduction in the movies, as good a thing as he has ever written. It begins:

What was the last movie you saw in which people fell in love because of the way they talked? I don’t mean simply to each other, but the way they used words, and how that usage reflected on such things as spirit and soul, as well as knowledge and experience. I mean the saving interplay of sadness and humor; the poetic grace or fancy that can deliver a compliment better than a caress. I mean an essential tenderness toward the cadence and sound of language — let syntax look after itself sometimes. Much as, early on in a relationship, we might only want to make love to and with the other person, surely words will have their hour and their lifetime. Marriage, I suggest, or partnership, depends on how urgently and wittily people continue to talk to each other. It is, if you like, the difference between saying (in the middle of a night or the middle of a relationship), “The field marshal sometimes forgets what he wanted to say when standing at attention,” and facing the blunt bathroom wall advertisement “9 inches of hot metal. Fucks forever.”

And I think I’m correct in saying that what gets most of us around the bases isn’t mere attraction or sexual urge. It’s the talk that makes a path, the feeble jokes, the better one; all couples need to learn humor. I am hesitant in raising education, but even “9 inches” will never face a greater need for schooling than finding ways to woo, or finding arguments to open some intransigent entrance. (Just call him or her “an intransigent entrance” — it’s so unexpected — and you may be halfway home.) I don’t guarantee it, but the thing most people are most denied in life is not actually sex or orgasm — we help ourselves. It’s being well talked to, in a way that persuades you the other person wants to know you. Never forget the second word in “carnal knowledge.”

He goes on to praise, of all things, “Notting Hill” as a prime example of the power of repartee, which of course makes sense when you remember how unlikely a couple Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant would make. What Thomson had not seen before writing this piece was the ravishingly famished look in Emily Blunt’s eyes in this film; she looks as if she’s going to devour Damon and jump inside him all at once. Ferocity doesn’t begin to describe the sexuality of her performance, sharpened all the more by Damon doing a very good Jimmy Stewart, deadpan wittiness just falling out of his mouth and surprising both of them.

“The Adjustment Bureau” would have us believe that its leading couple were always meant to be together, and that’s why they’re so instantly at ease with each other — that it’s the resonance of God’s plan they are vibrating to. Within 30 seconds of hearing them simply talk to (and bait) each other, you know they’re creating their own plan, one they have been hungering for all their lives. Seldom has a script been so at war with itself, like Preston Sturges was on the rewrite committee with the Wachowskis.

(Image credit: 4rilla/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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