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My Best of 2011: The Adjustment Bureau & True Romance

It’s that time of the year. To celebrate 2011, and the countdown to 2012, I’m going to count down my own twelve favourite films of the year, one a day until New Year’s Eve. I’m also going to talk a bit about how or why I chose them, and perhaps what makes this list “my” best of 2011, rather than any list claiming to be objective.

The Adjustment Bureau is number nine. Check out my original review here.

I think this is probably the first truly surprising choice of my own personal countdown. After all, the film debuted to generally positive reviews, but hardly the most exceptional critical feedback. It wasn’t loved and it wasn’t hated, but it was fairly quickly forgotten. I suspect that I will be one of very few people to include the title in my end-of-year best-of list. Still, I loved The Adjustment Bureau. And I think that’s strangely appropriate, because I’d argue that The Adjustment Bureau is perhaps the purest cinematic love story that we’ve seen in quite some time.

I freely admit that I can seem a bit of a grumpy curmudgeon from time to time. I’ve been called on my cynicism towards romantic comedies both inside and outside this blog quite a few times. I pride myself on trying to find something to enjoy in almost every film, but I am liable to tear into trash like The Ugly Truth or The Bounty Hunter. I just can’t stand those sorts of films, although I will try to give them a fair chance. People will claim that a bias exists on my part, a claim I refute. After all, I am just as likely to trash a terrible action movie like The Expendables or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen as any of these sorts of things. I don’t favour any genre at the expense of any other, and I like to think I give any film a decent shot.

However, people have been known to state that I am not romantic. This ignores the fact that I think (500) Days of Summer was one of the smartest and most endearing movies of the past ten years. It overlooks the fact that I consider Kevin Smith’s finest film to be Chasing Amy. It doesn’t account for my deep and abiding affection for When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle or any other engaging romantic comedies out there. I cried repeatedly at Up – even after I’d seen it multiple times. Still, perhaps my love of The Adjustment Bureau might finally prove, once and for all, just how big of a softie I happen to be.

You see, The Adjustment Bureau is the quintessential love story.

Now, I’m not talking about that sequence in the toilet, even though it demonstrates a wonderful chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. I think it’s possible for two people to fall in love over a conversation, and I think that the bathroom scene might stand as one of the finest illustrations of that principle. You get a sense that the pair are incredibly fascinated and intrigued by one another, and you understand why they might want to get to know each other better. Hell, you understand why Matt Damon’s David Norris might keep his eyes peeled for her for years after that one scene. Both Damon and Blunt knock it out of the park, and they deserve credit and recognition for that one scene alone. But that isn’t why the film is the quintessential love story.

It’s the quintessential love story because it so skilfully heightens all the traditional aspects one associates with a romance to an absurd degree. rather than adding ridiculous plot contrivances or insane logic, the movie takes all the ingredients we associate with an on-screen courtship and applies them literally. As our hero struggles to get across town, unable to hail a cab, it’s not just misfortune – the world actually is conspiring against him. When that crucial phone call doesn’t get through, it’s not just an absurd amount of bad luck – it’s divine intervention.

Most romantic films ask to accept a significant amount of chance set against our hero – whether it’s an awkward misunderstanding, or a race to stop a loved one before they board a plane, or a misconstrued gesture, or heavy traffic. The Adjustment Bureau is a lot more candid. Rather than the script producing arbitrary obstacles for the hero to surmount, it simply suggests that the world has been turned into a sinister Rube Goldberg machine designed to keep the two separated. It’s not chance or even fate that pulls our two lovers in opposite directions, it’s a divine “plan.”

In these sorts of movies, it might as well be reality itself that is focused on breaking up the leading couple, and it’s remarkably honest of this film to concede the point and have God himself intent on breaking the two up, because that’s what these sorts of movies often feel like anyway. The challenges facing our two leads become literal rather than metaphorical, and they find themselves fighting against the force of the narrative to stay together. I admire the film for being so candid in how it frames this, right down to the scene which illustrates the “plan” is jotted down inside a book, like any other story.

And the movie actually confronts the two characters with the consequences of their love. David is told that his love will never reach the height of fame she deserves if he stays with her. He’s told that he will never be President of the United States if he decides to settle down. It’s a reassuringly mature reflection on the nature of love, and another reason I admire the film. Romance typically asks us to accept that “love conquers all” and that our two leads will live “happily ever after”, their lives naturally the better for it. These movies seldom seem to realise that love is as much about sacrifice as it is about gain.

In choosing to truly love somebody, there’s an element of cost. You sacrifice something for the union, giving up some measure of independence and embracing compromise between the two people in the relationship. After all, love is two lives lived as one, so it naturally involves some course correction on each of the two journeys. It might mean giving up on some of your own aspirations, but it’s a price that’s worth it – if that’s what you want. However, you have to be willing to make that choice, and that’s what real love is. Kissing in the rain is romantic, as are poetry and candle-light, but love is a willingness to compromise for somebody else’s happiness.

To be frank, I admire how mature the film is in acknowledging this aspect of love. It recognises that sometimes love itself is enough to make those sacrifices worth taking. It doesn’t suggest that life would be “better” or “worse”, but merely different – the path you choose changes the outcome, so you have to decide which outcome is most important. You can’t necessarily have it all, and sometimes you have to choose. It’s not the type of moral you’ll typically see in a romantic film, and it’s great to see it actually articulated here, and not presented as some sort of massive cop-out.

Perhaps I’m just a softie at heart, but I admired how honest the film was. Sure, it’s a film about fedora-wearing angels who can’t use telepathy near water and move through a sequence of mysterious doorways connecting everywhere in New York, but it could teach most romantic films a thing or two about love.

I’m counting down my top twelve films of 2011, one a day. Here’s the list so far:

12.) Rango

11.) The Guard

10.) Super 8

09.) The Adjustment Bureau

08.) True Grit

07.) Rise of the Planet of the Apes

06.) Black Swan

05.) Thor

04.) Midnight in Paris

03.) The Artist

02.) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

01.) Drive

You might also like our other end/start-of-year pieces:

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One Response

  1. I thought it was great. I suppose the ending wasn’t perfect, but other than that I loved it all the way through. I felt emotionally exhausted enduring their breakups and being reunited.

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