Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly and Terence Stamp.
Senator David Norris is on the fast track to politcal success. Dancer Elise Sellas is on the fast track to becoming the elite ballerina on the New York theatre circuit.
It’s not in the plan.
There’s a plan? Sure, David and Elise are destined to fall in love. But not that way.
There’s a plan. There’s always a plan.
“Just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean They aren’t out to get you.”
I’ve always appreciated that little witticism/message scrawled in ragged paint on a faux reclaimed wood panel sold in most Hallmark stores. It’s a curiosity, really if you think about it. I think it’s safe to claim that all of us at one time in our wretched, little lives that someone, maybe someones, hell even something is out to get us. Ruin our day. F*ck around with our credit score. Keying our car. Misspelling your name on that Starbuck’s venti latte (so that Mark gets your hot, foamy comfort rather than you, Matt). Dammit, someone’s out to get me. Rats.
That’s not to say I’m paranoid, it’s just that everyone is out to get me. Kidding (maybe).
Notice that I capitilzed “they” in the opening line. That’s not a typo, nor entirely accurate either. Pertaining to irrational fears of possible persecution, home invasion, wiretapping your kitchen, wiretapping your car, letter bombs stuffed with anthrax, the repo man, wiretapping yor dog, most of all that truck is nothing more than a product of a fevered imagination, maybe a result of brown acid. Or a binge watch of a Dennis Hopper movie marathon.
“I think, you want to know what I think? I think this is a crackpot idea!”
Paranoia is indeed crackpot thinking, like your meager life matters to humankind at large. Look in the mirror. Go on, go look. I’ll wait.
*sounds of sursurring Atlantic surf*
There. You ain’t special. You’re just another guy trying to make their way in the world, paying taxes, eating pizza and always on the hunt for the ideal parking spot. Like everyone else, even your kids. But on the other side of the coin it nags at you: there’s more than this, so why haven’t I found it? I’m so stressed. Is someone or something getting in my way?
Probably, like you being your own worst enemy and all those mistakes you made in college (like posting your kegstand skills on your LinkedIn profile. While doing a kegstand. Good times, good times, bad résumé). There may very well be a clutch of people who want to make things difficult for you based on your reputation and past bad decisions (read: kegstands). If so, maybe They’re just pissed you stole their parking spot. Being one’s own worst enemy can make Them a convenient excuse for your headaches. Or just plain confuse and/or derail your train of thought.
Face it. Some days it really does feel like the forces are collunding against you. Those bad days messed up with silly frustrations and epic fails alike. Traffic jam miles long on the highway when you’re on your way to that big interview and you can’t call ahead because either the reception is spotty or you failed to properly charge your phone from that all-nighter with Fortnight (and you with that big interview in the morning. For shame). All the coupons you collected for the market are either expired or for stuff the place doesn’t carry. That damned GrubHub delivery guy is clogging your spot again (after returning home to hop back on Indeed. That stupid Ethopian prince charity never panned out. Argh. Little bamboo shoots under the nails are these, and the pain can make you want to shake a fist at the sky. Don’t; it may start to rain. You hear what I’m screamin’?
All this musing on paranoia reminds me of a passage of a fave book of mine: Michael Crichton’s autibio Travels. Quit moaning. True the guy wrote potboilers, but they were very good potboilers (I heard even a few of his books were made into movies). Crichton’s travelogue covers his med school years, getting into writing and his world travels that informed a lot of his novels. Not surprisingly, his trademark frank writing about amazing things holds sway. Besides med school and globetrotting, there are a few paens to other odd situations he got himself into. Like him directing the film The Great Train Robbery starring Sean Connery. Like getting all psychedelic at the Institute Of Mentalphysics in the California desert by talking with a cactus (with, not to). Like the proper way to mentally bend spoons (it requires spirits, and neither of those). And like the time he had to consider his place in the realm of sexual politics.
Before I continue and although I’ve thoroughly enjoyed some of his books—Sphere jumps immediately to mind—I’ve found Crichton to be a very egotistical, sexist, racist writer. His frank technobabble style is so casual it almost reads like a science nerd’s thesis. You don’t understand? Well, haw haw, of course not and take my hand, you quark. Almost all his protags are white males, whose conflicts and foibles take many chapters to reveal. All females and non-whites’ flaws are out there all at once. Almost all his women are capable, but are strung up like Wonder Woman with her gauntlets welded together; impotent. Even in my pet Sphere, the antagonist may or may not be a black guy with an inferiority complex (no, that’s not a spoiler. I couldn’t really figure it out myself). Now, if you can get beyond all that happy crappy, Crichton’s stories are ultimately rewarding, if only with a sour taste in your brain.
Hang on. This is a parable about paranoia. I eventully get somewhere, right? Right? Anyway.
In his Travels, Crichton penned a chapter ominously titled “They.” Sounded like a script for a 1950s s/f B-movie. At first it read like Crichton, recently single, him having trouble making the scene again, naive since being out of the dating game for so long. It was the 1980s, fast to work and late to bed. Our esteemed writer felt truly wide of the mark, even when he managed to score some tail. He claimed to learn then that woman were following the design (albeit with yet to be processed Red Bull) institued by males back when Mike was…male.
The chapter spoke about guys in the 1980s trying to catch up with the career minded women who wanted it fast and quick rather than time consuming courting. It read all very sexist, like males were incapable of recognizing their emotional needs, and they had it all together. The whole chapter read like a scared man who failed to try and understand female needs. He summed his experiences up with an inability to keep up with this “new kind of woman.” That being the career-driven, freewheeling and often “macho” kind of female that for good or for ill—in Crichton’s view—are climbing all over the early-80s social scene. And him getting lost in the shuffle.
Nonetheless it’s a thoughtful piece, “They.” Not necessarily a paranoid caution, but something to give one pause. I’m not talking about shoulder pads, feathered hair and lugging around an Osborne “laptop” on the way to the shareholders’ meeting who won’t give a nice guy a second glance circa 1984. No. It’s about becoming vaugely aware that there might be a section of society at large that may indeed be scoping you out, sizing you up and maybe just plain getting in your way.
To paraphrase Hugh Jackman in Swordfish: “Stop f*cking up my chi.”
(Go with me here. I’m rolling.)
The curious thing about feeling paranoid, no matter who your They are, it’s never truly about They are “out to get you.” Get you. Okay, how? I barely get myself sometimes. Some nameless, faceless cabal are out to f*ck up your life because they don’t get you? They don’t even know you. All They might do—if They indeed are truly laying in wait to jam their SUV into your usual/infrequent parking spot bearing bags from Chipotle—is interfere. Mess up your schedule. F*ck with your system. Make you question sh*t you’re usually pretty sure about, like it being impossible to wiretap a Corgi. All that jumping. Really? They don’t know you.
Or do They? When the world feels like its conspiring against you, how come it feels so damned personal? So f*cking specific? Lightning struck thrice. Again with the fist. It makes a rational person begin to question the very fabric of their reality. He or she may not be paranoid, but dammit there sure are times when They might be creeping at your doorstep. Rearraging your sh*t. Shuffling up your well laid plans. Your routine getting shifted. Your familiar patterns get all out of order.
Sometimes, sometimes, such things being so out of order at times you—a normally rational person—wonder if some They is treating your daily affairs like a game of Yahtzee.
“Paranoia: you only have to be right once to make it all worthwhile…”
Politics is a dirty business, so it has been said. Makes strange bedfellows, too I’ve heard. Cliches aside, when one gets into the public eye goodbye privacy, hello microscope. You get to be a scion of virtue, too. At least to an adoring crowd.
Senator David Norris (Damon) knows this. He also knows how to politick. Using his “local guy from Red Hook” persona, Norris drums up the average New Yorkers into cheers and possible votes. He’s on the fast track, until some dirty laundry from his college days (inexplicably) comes back to haunt him, and may destroy his political career. Where’d that come from?
David’s fortunes seem to change meeting up with an aspiring dancer, Elise Sellas (Blunt). She’s lovely, vivacious and just the kind of girl David needs to be with to get both his head together and well as his frustrated heart. Elise comes and goes like the wind, and if it wasn’t for a fateful bus ride David may have never seen Elise again.
Well, that was how it was supposed to be.
David quickly learns that not everything a matter of chance. The sudden dirt a while back, once thought dead and buried? Elise meeting him in the mens’ room at one of his big deal speechs? Harry (Mackie) metaphorically falling asleep “at the wheel” and spilling the wrong coffee?
Strange things are afoot for David, and it all began by being on time. For some future…
This was different for me. In many ways.
I didn’t know at the outset that Bureau was based on a Philip K Dick story. Dick was a legendary s/f writer. I even read a few of his stories, and saw all of the movies based on his works. The list is short, but telling. Granted his name isn’t household regarding film adaptions like, say, Stephen King, Harry Potter or 3/4 of the Marvel titles out there, including those yet to written. Still, the fact that any of Dick’s esoteric s/f stories got the Hollywood treatment surprises me.
I say telling because most, if not all of Dick’s library regard reading it requires scratching one’s head into psoriasis. His isn’t casual s/f, and barely user friendly. Yet their adaptations into film usually work well (I credit the directors). I’ve seen Blade Runner (fave go-to film and duh), Total Recall (the first one. Can’t believe I have to quantify that), Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly (an early installment here at RIORI, and not a good one) and Bureau. So when I finally discovered Dick posthumously wrote the screenplay, I was like: “Oh. Okay.” Found this out after a 24 hour pause then on with the second act. The film made a lot more sense. Not in story, but in execution. Here’s what we got back from the lab:
Real quick. I feel it worth mentioning that Dick was a writer who was always asking questions. Primarily his muse was always demanding of him, “What is reality?” I also feel it worth mentioning Dick was a paranoiac, speedfreak and riddled with phobias (eg: he could eat in front of other people. Guess ol’ Phil wasn’t much of a “foodie”) that no doubt informed his work. All of his adapts have taken his musings to heart; from Blade Runner to Bureau, Dick’s films love to blur the edges about what you see is what you see. Now activate the esper machine, please.
Bureau is no different. The very slight undercurrent of paranoia looms large here. To think there is some omniscient team regulating reality, well that’s all about They, isn’t it? I say undercurrent for this film is pretty low-key for a s/f thriller. We got no Tom Cruise juggling balls here, literally or metaphorically. No. We have Damon’s scales fall from his eyes about how the “real world” works and off he goes, back to work and stalking Blunt again. In another movie of this ilk there’d be some drop and panic. Some all-powerful entity pulling humanity’s puppet strings to some end—good or evil, who knows?—might just give pause to the protag who stumbled on to such machinations.
With Bureau? Nope. This is an odd combo of mystery and rom-com, minus the com part. Heck, the hottest moments don’t start coming until well into the second act. Most of the time we’re wondering what’s so special about David that the Bureau takes interest in his career and nascent relationship with Elise. And what’s so special about Elise that also caught the eye of the men in the hats. We’re mostly left to scratching our heads, with no real answers in sight. If they ever come.
Not to say that Bureau is some sort of canard. The jagged story is engaging, but it requires patience. Meaning there was me, with furrowed brows and “What am I watching here?” bouncing around my brainpan. Any suspense in Bureau is created by the looming undertow of paranoia, psychology and passive aggression. All of it. All decent suspense films like to play with your head. Bureau decidedly does not play with your head, and that gets unsettling. Especially when our heroes go back to life as usual after being exposed to the real reality. After digesting all the craftiness the Bureau employs to keep reality on the straight and narrow, our pawns carrying on with their existence (a manipulated one) feels very…weird. Unsettling. The abnormal is the new normal, so don’t behave abnormally, David.
About Damon. After all these years I’ve never warmed up to his smarm. Most his memorable roles required him to be a callow youth (even into his late 30s. Ever see The Departed? Kinda distracting) against near insurmountable cinematic goobley-gook. Portraying a salt-of-the-earth politician, job requirements are lip service and charming the public? Smarm works here. And what is smarm but the behavior of a repentant assh*le? Well, assh*le may be a bit much regarding David’s everyday conduct, but said conduct is endearing when couched in insecurity. David’s whole world has gone all topsy-turvy, and believes (correctly) that forces are colluding against him. When all that artifice gets stripped away he is exposed. Naked. Volitile. Scared. Damon’s smarminess becomes the ideal gateway to earn the audiences sympathy. Clever. The same thing didn’t work in The Departed, remember? Sure different kind of movie, but same Damon. Turning Matt on his ear was a good thing, otherwise I’d keep replaying the scene where the Agents were slapping him around. Hell, after sitting through Good Will Hunting one too many times I’d be first in line to slap that smug grin off his puss.
I wasn’t familiar with Emily Blunt’s work prior to Bureau, but she earned me as a fan here (enough to be charged to see Mary Poppins Returns this Xmas. It was awesome, BTW). It’s always a treat to discover an actress who can pull of smart and sweet in the same breath. Such characters are so rare it takes and obscure Dick adapt to present one. Her steely Elise was the perfect foil to Damon’s overgrown gamin grin. Good chemistry, and I think the casting director earned their stripes pitting these two against each other. Granted their fractured relationship is the Maguffin here, front and center, but there was enough nuauce to let us know not all is as it seems, let alone theirs is just a fling. It’s the lurking paranoia again. Coincidences don’t just happen in David’s world. They are structured, and flinty Elise is the fulcrum on which David’s world now balances.
Sounds like heavy sh*t, right? Considering the source material and the whole “They are out to get you” stance, you may be right. Me? Wasn’t so sure. For such dire sequences to happen for the Bureau, there’s a kind of light-heartedness to the whole affair. So the speak. I took some patience, but I eventually realized that Bureau managed to (just barely) deftly blurred romance against s/f. Right, it was without the -com; precious little humor lurking within this grey movie. But in the final act we got the “love conquers everything” without the schmatlz and sniffles. That there’s a fluffy trifle, but for a Dick script? That’s…well, heavy. Overall I dug that.
Mackie is fast becoming a fave actor of mine. His Harry sets the wheels in motion, and across the film he’s the only emotional construct of the Bureau. He’s the canary in the coalmine, chirping about danger. A metaphysical babelfish, alluding to all that the Norris matter isn’t so simple by keeping him and Elise apart. Mackie is adept at using his body at converying emotion, especially his eyes. His is all so subtle, you’re not sure what you’re watching until you do. I know that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and it’s probably all about believing it when you see it, but as the painter Frank Stella once said, “What you see is what you see” (that’s an eponym from Travels. See? Full circle).
I was gonna talk about the tech side of Bureau (I dug the camera work), but that’s seconadry stuff, better suited for a Cameron tech splash. No. The only machine at work here in Bureau was…um. Okay. Ever seen a movie that was creepy yet not? The creepiness factor here is made known by making the abstract plot so…so rational. Bureau is supposed to be high concept s/f, but picking at the scab of paranoia that haunts all of us? There is someone not only out to get you, but to lead you lemming-like to your ulimate fate? Feels that way sometimes, right? If not often. And chances are you won’t earn your audience back and Emily Blunt chose the ladies’ room.
I think this intallment has been one of my better ones. Sometimes laying off the snark and jokes makes it easier to explain what I got out of a film and maybe you, too. But it’s not like I’m directing you to watch Bureau. I’ll advise, but never demand, control you to watch a film I broke down here at RIORIB.
*cue Black Sabbath riff*
Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It takes time and attention to get going, but once Bureau does, you’re going to watch it again to break it down. And again. And again. And…
- “This is the job.”
- Men in fedoras in the 21st Century. Never a good sign.
- “You’re bald.” Damon’s characters have always been good at busting balls. It’s disarming.
- Why does it seem that would-be politicians running for office are often undone by past impetuousness of a long ago youth? Judge Kavanaugh, I’m looking at you.
- “I just felt like someone was watching us.”
- She was barefoot in the mens’ room?!? Gross!
- “You matter, David. You really can.”
- Editing blooper: Damon’s model of smartphone switches back and forth on the bus ride. Call me dork.
- “That is…totally unexpected.”
Bruce Willis wonders where The Kid in him went. Good thing a screechy Spencer Breslin appears to answer and horrify him. Where’s the dog?