The Adjustment Bureau: Stylish, thoughtful, clever and full of holes

The Adjustment Bureau is a fine, fun movie that’s a good place to start a conversation about free will, fate, “God’s plan for my life,” and all that. But it’s not a good place to finish that conversation. Go see this movie — it could make for a smarter-than-usual date flick — but do not let it change your theology, cosmology. psychology or any other -ology.

The Adjustment Bureau, based on an old story by  legendary sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, stars Matt Damon as David Norris, a talented, up-and-coming New York politician who meets and falls in love with Elise Sellas, a talented, up-and-coming modern dancer played by Emily Blunt. But they’re not supposed to be together, according to a cosmic plan sketched out by a godlike “Chairman.”

We never see the Chairman, but we are introduced to members of the Adjustment Bureau — supernatural “case officers” dressed in 60s-style suits, overcoats and fedoras who monitor people’s comings and goings and, if necessary, perform incremental “adjustments” to make sure the humans stay on their life plans. John Slattery  (AMC’s “Mad Men”), Anthony Mackie (“The Hurt Locker”) and Terence Stamp are the main “bureaucrats” working on the David-Elise case.

The Adjustment Bureau could have either veered off into silliness or into a cinematic slog through existential philosophy. To the film’s credit, it does neither: We get to enjoy a very human story while playing mind games with what it all means.  Damon and Blunt make the movie click: they have great on-screen chemistry. (Note to casting directors: Return to this pairing, but not too often. Please don’t make them a cliché.) The movie finished second in the box office during its opening weekend.

The ideas behind the story derive not from just a good question, but some of the great questions that have inspired and haunted humans for ages, from the 4,600-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh (perhaps the world’s oldest written story) to meditations on the Nazi Holocaust. How much of life is controlled by fate, by God? Do humans have free will? Is there anything such as pure, random chance?

This is like native soil for director and screenwriter George Nolfi, who carries both an enviable box-office record (Ocean’s Eleven, The Bourne Ultimatum) and a notable educational pedigree: After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton (public policy), he did graduate work in philosophy at Oxford and in political science at UCLA.

No surprise, then, that he’s given us a movie that’s not only stylish, clever and often slyly humorous. (Metaphysical case workers doze on the job, misunderstand the boss and must deal with staff shortages — some truths really are universal.) It’s thoughtful and thought-provoking too.

Still, I felt frustrated at several points. For instance, Nolfi seems to lump all concepts of god and/or fate together, without any nuance: ancient Greek myth, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, pantheist … it all comes out in the wash. I don’t know his personal religious views, but his movie’s concept of a deity was like an Impressionist painting: interesting and engaging when considered from a distance, but fairly muddy when viewed up close.

As enjoyable as The Adjustment Bureau is (yes, I’d watch it again), it won’t take long during a post-movie chat to start poking holes in the movie’s “universe.” That random events seem to happen isn’t the problem: that’s one of the movie’s central questions. But there are also points of incoherence that aren’t satisfactorily covered by the “laws” of the story. What was Elise’s motivation at a key point in the story? What was the “fate” of one of the agents who bent the rules? Is a very good, really long kiss actually that powerful? (I’m trying not to give away any spoilers.)

And where can I get a hat like that?

Sex and the church (Hooray for Hollywood)

Hollywood Boulevard, from the Kodak Theater

It’s a safe guess that only a few pastors can utter the following sentence: “They do casting for porn films in our building.”

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Pastor Joseph Barkley of Ecclesia Hollywood is the only one who can. Just to be clear: the church hasn’t sold its soul to supplement its offerings. It leases space in a building two blocks from the famous corner of Hollywood and Vine, and the skin-flick casting company happens to be in the same building.

The church is also next door to Ultra Vixen Vampwear, a lingerie shop that counts strippers among its customers. (“We have a wonderful relationship” with the store, Barkley said. “They put up signs for our Christmas Eve service. We give them cards.” He doesn’t personally walk in; he leaves that to women church members.)

Ecclesia (from the Greek word for “church”) Hollywood was planted five years ago; Barkley and his wife were among the first leaders, and he became the lead pastor a year ago. It’s a theologically conservative nondenominational church that was running about 500 last December. Now it’s closer to 800.

Why the growth? You might call it sexual attraction.

At the start of January, the church started “Skin,” a series of Sunday sermons and weekly study groups that deal frankly with sex. It started with the first three chapters of Genesis and moved into the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 5, 6 and 15, if you’re keeping score). Last week Barkley talked about homosexuality.

This Sunday – known in some remote regions as Super Bowl Sunday – he will talk about pornography, one of about 300 churches participating in “Porn Sunday.” The timing was providential, Barkley said. Ecclesia planned the “Skin” series months ago, but when a friend of his, who leads the, put together the Porn Sunday program, it fit nicely in to Ecclesia’s schedule. (NPR ran a segment about Porn Sunday on Thursday’s “All Things Considered.”)

So let’s think about this: a conservative church in the middle of Hollywood, talking about sex. A lot.

Pastor Joseph Barkley of Ecclesia Hollywood

“I think it’s shocking to most of the city that there’s a church here,” Barkley told me on Thursday. “There’s an assumption that the rest of the city might make. They have this paradigm that what we have to say about sex is anemic, inadequate, judgmental.”

Try again.

“They’re surprised to find out Christians have fun talking about sex. Look, the whole account of creation in Genesis ends up with two people standing in a garden, buck naked,” he said. “We take that as a signal that God wants us to talk about it with freedom.”

Barkley’s elevator speech to explain “Skin” goes like this:

“In a culture where we no longer think the choices we make have any significance, we wanted to teach the revolutionary thought that your bodies actually matter, that they have eternal significance. Your body has a purpose … it’s not an accident. You were handcrafted. The fulfillment of that purpose is the privilege we have. So we’re trying to offer a recalibration of how we value our own bodies and what we’ve chosen to do with them.”

So “Skin” really isn’t about sex. It’s bigger than that, Barkley said, either standing Sigmund Freud on his head or spinning him in his grave.

“The biggest issue, the most nagging disease we deal with, is isolation,” he explained. “We minister to orphans and dreamers. Most people moved here from somewhere else both to chase a dream and to get away from something. They have no roots, no tradition, no sense of family. After a while they realize what that vacuum is doing to their soul. Sexual brokenness is directly linked to that sense of fear, of isolation.”

So the teaching about sex, he said, is in some ways “ancillary, a device that God is using to get to the root of the problems.”

Something’s clicking, if numbers mean anything. Maybe sex really does sell, even for church. But Barkley spoke more about all the conversations he’s been having since the series began, including a constantly ringing phone and 70-plus daily e-mails he’s been getting, a load that’s “off the charts.”

He’s especially glad that people who disagree with him say they’re going to stick around and keep listening.

“Generally, people are appreciative for us being honest,” he said. “A huge value of ours is vulnerability. People are almost surprised at the transparency with how we’re talking about sex. … We try to be honest, with as much plain language as possible. I’ve given the PG-13 disclaimer for parents from the pulpit.”

Barkley is convinced everyone in the room has some kind of sexual dysfunction. Easily half of the congregation on any given Sunday is struggling with addiction to porn in some way, he said. Honesty is the only option, considering where the church is situated and that about 90 percent of its members work in the movie industry (including some whom we’d probably recognize, if he were to name them).

“We’re trying to build a strong church, not a safe church,” he said. “I don’t want to spoon-feed people; I want us to think like grownups, to have the equipment to make theological decisions about life. How is my sexuality a demonstration of the image of God? We’re not helping anybody if we’re not having honest conversations about this.”

What movies can do

Jamal (Dev Patel, left) rises
Slumdog Jamal (Dev Patel, left) rises


Five years ago the big news in movies was The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s ambitious, gory, controversial and hugely successful portrayal of Jesus’ last 12 hours before his crucifixion. That project was the talk of the town.

Gibson has since slipped off the movie-business radar. His next project after Passion was Apocalypto, an ambitious, gory, controversial and mildly successful portrayal of the passing of ancient South America. After that? Not a lot.

 The Passion of the Christ has followed the typical movie route into DVD rentals, except that some churches, in the weeks before Easter, pull their copy off the library shelf for special showings. But the bold predictions when it first appeared – dire warnings of how the film would fuel anti-Semitism with its portrayal of Jewish complicity in Jesus’ execution, as well as glowing promises among some Christians that the movie would lead people to embrace their faith – did not come to pass.

Is there a lesson here? Maybe just that while well-made movies can move us to think or prompt us to talk about the most important issues in our lives, by themselves they don’t have the power to convert individuals or shift society. Mass media are powerful but not all powerful.

The story line and expectations aren’t so grand for this year’s leading contenders for Best Picture award, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire. Yet, these fables have still set people talking about Big Questions.

Button is the sprawling epic of a New Orleans man born with an old man’s body who ages backwards. As his body “youthens” and his mind (and spirit?) matures, we follow his life through his adventures, some of them literally sea-going, and his one great love.

Slumdog follows Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a barely educated chai wallah, or tea server, at a customer service call center who has a shot at winning the grand jackpot on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Through flashbacks, we discover that he can answer the questions because of his harrowing upbringing in the Mumbai slums.

They are very different movies, of course: set on different continents, in different times, with entirely different approaches to the storytelling. But they also share much. At their core they are touching love stories, portraying relationships in which “love endures all things,” to use a biblical phrase.

Both also deal with the role of fate or destiny, but their answers are sharply different and surprising.

Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) youthens
Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) youthens

The destiny of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is sealed by a biological quirk, and a clock is literally ticking in this story. We watch to see what Mr. Button does with his time. Despite happy interludes, high adventure and passionate love, his story turns out to be ultimately tragic.

By contrast, Slumdog Millionaire is a story of choices and possibilities, even though Jamal’s destiny seems to be written from the start. Despite the squalor, heartache and brutality played out on the screen, this movie is actually a comedy in the classic sense. As a few reviewers have noted, underneath the skin of this Bollywood-inspired tale beats the heart of a classic rags-to-riches, feel-good – some say, American Hollywood – story.

Here’s the paradox: Who would have expected that the movie set in bright, exciting 20th century America would turn out to be the sadder story in the end? Slumdog Millionaire hits the moviegoer from the first scene with searing pain and seemingly endless despair. Modern India’s tensions serve both as backdrop and as focal point. The contrast between terrible poverty and unimaginable wealth is only the start. (It’s no accident that the main characters are Muslims making their way in a Hindu-dominated society.)

Yet it is Slumdog that ends with triumph, optimism and a very cool dance number. In fact, that joyful release at the end (memories of college dredge up the word “catharsis”) wouldn’t feel nearly as powerful or even make sense without the high-stakes story of loss and struggle that came before. Tears stay for a time, the movie says, but joy comes in the morning.

A trip to the multiplex probably isn’t going change anyone’s life, but as far as movies go, that’s not a bad idea to walk out with. It’s worth an eight-buck ticket.

This week I’m working on …


… a column just in time for the Academy Awards. I’m playing with the idea of fate, particularly as that notion is portrayed in two of the leading Best Picture contenders: Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Both are modern fables, both deal with Big Topics, including fate or destiny. There’s the interesting contrast, too, that comes from one being set in 20th century Western culture and the other in early 21st century Indian (Eastern) culture. Religion isn’t explicit, but it’s there in the cultural backgrounds, especially with SM. (What my friend Terry Mattingly calls a religion “ghost” in what seems to be a nonreligious story.)

Any thoughts?