Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
One of the best films of 2011 is still “The Adjustment Bureau,” George Nolfi’s sci-fi romantic thriller that has at its core a boggling theological question: How much are our lives predetermined by a higher power, and how much comes about as a result of free will? The movie, which is still in theaters, comes out on Blu-ray and DVD combo pack from Universal Studios Home Entertainment on June 21.
Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1954 short story, “The Adjustment Team,” the film revolves around David Norris (Matt Damon) a politician bent on pursuing the woman of his dreams (Emily Blunt), though angel-like figures in fedoras strive to keep them apart. These members of the Adjustment Bureau can even stop time to thwart the lovers, lest their affair foil the cosmic plan designed by The Chairman, an entity who could either represent God or Big Brother.
I decided to track down the film’s writer-director, George Nolfi, after reading Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin’s thought-provoking review in the Journal, titled “Finally, an Action Thriller for Religious Thinkers:” “Judaism, Christianity and Islam all believe in an all-powerful and all-knowing God who controls everything that happens in the world,” Korobkin writes. “What, then, is the role of our own decisions? Does man truly possess free will, or does he only have the “appearance” of free will? …The best line of the movie for me was when the Damon character is finally confronted by one of the higher up angels, who tells him that he must conform to his predestined fate. Damon looks at him and says, “What about free will?” The angel’s response (I’m paraphrasing from memory) is classic: “We tried giving humans free will and look what we ended up with: wars, pogroms, the Holocaust. That’s why we’ve been forced to take it away. You think you have free will? You only have the illusion of free will.”
Nolfi – a former academic whose screenwriting credits include “Ocean’s Twelve” and “The Bourne Ultimatum”—told me the Adjustment Bureau and its Chairman could represent God and His angels – or not. And he declined to outline his own religious beliefs, except to say that his father was raised Catholic while his mother was an Episcopalian.
“My own beliefs don’t matter in terms of the movie,” Nolfi said by phone from his Los Angeles home. “What matters is the question of how much we’re determined and how much we’re free, which – no matter how you look at the world – is a pressing one. If you look at the movie through a theological lens, that’s fine; it’s just that you don’t have to.”
Here are some further excerpts from our conversation:
NPM: You have quite an academic pedigree for a filmmaker – studies in philosophy and political science at Princeton and on a Marshall Scholarship at Oxford; and a master’s degree from UCLA. It all makes sense when you consider the themes of “The Adjustment Bureau” —but how did you first become interested in these issues?
GN: After my parents split up when I was a [child], I lived with my mother, who was pretty interested in religion and was also a fairly regular churchgoer. I became interested in philosophy as a way of looking at the world. But for most of human existence, philosophy and theology have been merged, so on those two fronts I became fascinated with this issue of how much do we get to choose our own path through our actions and choices, and how much do outside forces set us on a path or constrain us. You can view those larger forces as societal, like the culture you were born into, the language you speak, your religion, your parents—or as biological, such as how healthy you are and what kind of biochemistry you have. And/or you can view things through the lens of some larger plan that a universal God has for you. Whatever the lens you choose, I’m fascinated by this question of how much do you get to rise above or challenge the circumstances that have set you on a certain course.
NPM: You certainly did that yourself when you decided to leave academia for Hollywood.
GN: While near the end of my college experience, I started watching movies really for the first time in my life, and was really impressed by the ability of the best films to leave you thinking about its issues long afterwards. I realized that… if I pursued academia, the very issues I was most interested in would have to be studied in a very narrow way and talked about amongst a very small group of people. But I was more interested in a conversation with the public at large, which is what appealed to me about films. I got an agent, who basically said it’s almost impossible to break into Hollywood from 7,000 miles away. So I left Oxford, [transferred] to UCLA, and started writing scripts.
NPM: How did you come to read the Philip K. Dick story?
GN: I was not an avid science fiction reader, but my producing partner was, and he pitched me the premise: the notion of fate not as an abstract issue but as a group of individuals – fate personified as a bureau of agents. I thought that was a great original premise for a film – I hadn’t seen it done before, and it would allow me to get into those areas I find most fascinating.
NPM: What are some of the differences between the story and the movie?
FN: The concept of a higher power is in the story, but with a much more cynical attitude toward it, which is what one might expect from Philip K. Dick and his concerns. [Dick – whose work inspired the 1982 film, “Blade Runner”—drew on his personal experiences with drug abuse, paranoia and schizophrenia to explore social and metaphysical issues in stories that often featured authoritarian regimes and corporations.] I optioned the short story in 2003; one day, my business partner suggested that we could transform the narrative into a love story, where it’s a guy fighting fate for the woman he loves. We were talking on the phone and I said, “I want to do that; I think I can tell that story.” I was intrigued by the potential to cross genres; in this way, the film wouldn’t just be a dark, dystopic science fiction movie—it would stand outside of the genre but use elements of it.
NPM: Have you come to any conclusions of your own about free will versus predestination?
GN: I think it’s both: We are both completely constrained and we’re also completely free, which is paradoxical, but that’s what makes it interesting.
NPM: In the movie, it is also both. Not just because David Norris chooses to fight his own predestined fate. A high-ranking “angel” tells him that The Chairman backed off and allowed humans to run things during certain periods in history; but The Chairman took back control when those periods resulted in catastrophes such as World War I, the Depression and the Holocaust. Was that scene in Dick’s story?
GN: No, that was a complete invention. The story is tonally very different from the film; the concerns are much more: “Is this reality or is this a sort of mental construct? Is this really happening to the main character, or is he going crazy?” Also, it seems to me that Dick believed that no matter how much time you spent philosophizing or trying to use religion to grapple with these issues, it wasn’t going to get you anywhere.
NPM: You’ve pointed out that the free will debate is a recurring theme in Judaism, Christianity and Islam—as is the question of suffering and pain.
GN: Again, I’m not saying that people must put a theological lens on the movie, but if you do, then immediately you run up against the problem of evil—certainly in any monotheistic religion I’m familiar with. You very quickly get to, “If God is benevolent, all-powerful and all-knowing, why do we feel thwarted all the time, and why do all these bad things happen?” The movie gives a potential answer to that which is, we wouldn’t be able to understand, appreciate or use our free will if we didn’t also encounter obstacles to it.
NPM: I can’t imagine that studios were dying to make a movie that tackled such heavy theological questions. Did anyone challenge you on this?
GN: Shockingly, no. People were incredibly supportive—partly because there was the script I had written, so they could see how it played through.
NPM: Matt Damon championed you getting signed on as the director – giving you the chance to make your directorial debut with a major studio film.
GN: I showed the script to Matt right after I did “Ocean’s Twelve” with him. He was going off to do “The Bourne Ultimatum,” which I had been called in to [rewrite]. I went to England and worked on the script as they were shooting it for a long time, so he was very familiar with my work.
NPM: You’ve done panel discussions with clergy after screenings of the film – what did you find most interesting about those conversations?
GN: The most profoundly interesting thing was learning that Judaism and Islam have strong strands of thinking both in terms of a deterministic view of God, and a free will view. I had known more about that in the Christian tradition, so it was interesting to hear the historical arguments within other religions as well.
NPM: One theological argument opines that angels have no free will, because they were created by God only to be good. But members of the Adjustment Bureau are more complex.
GN: Call them angels or call them agents— if they embodied just pure good, they wouldn’t be very interesting as characters, and furthermore you wouldn’t be able to set up a conflict between them and the [protagonists]. The trick was to make David’s agenda one that viewers could buy into and see as good—and to make the Bureau’s agenda contrary to that, but then come around to seeing that their agenda was “good” as well. That was an incredibly complicated screenwriting problem for me.
NPM: The first “person” you thank in the credits is The Chairman. You’re obviously very good at what you do, but the Chairman has been with you – or at least, the studio’s chairman.
GN: That was definitely one of the tongue-in-cheek aspects of thanking The Chairman.
“The Adjustment Bureau” is currently playing at theaters such as the Culver Plaza Theatre and the Pacific Sherman Oaks 5. Check listings for more details.
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April 18, 2011 | 1:44 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Ghostface is back with “Scre4m,” and with it Courtney Cox and David Arquette, who met on the set of the first “Scream,” in 1996, married three years later, had a daughter but after 11 years of marriage are now in the midst of a trial separation. In interviews with Oprah and Howard Stern, the two have explained their marital woes; and Arquette has been candid about his struggles in the aftermath of the split, which have included a car accident, substance abuse, and a fling with a cocktail waitress that gossip rags described as cheating, even though it took place after the separation. The actor has also discussed his stint in rehab, his more than 100 days of sobriety, his continuing therapy and his desire to reconcile with his wife.
Arquette’s strong feelings about family and fidelity were apparent when I spoke to him last year about his role in the play “The Female of the Species,” at the Geffen Playhouse; during the conversation, he twisted off his gold wedding ring to reveal the inscription he shares with Cox: “A deal’s a deal. 6-12-1999.” The ornate script recalls the couple’s marriage in a multifaith ceremony in which Arquette broke a glass to honor his late Jewish mother, Mardi (nee Brenda Nowak), the daughter of a refugee from Nazi-occupied Poland. (The actor’s late father, Lewis Arquette, was not Jewish).
The Journal story from 2010 was titled “David Arquette: The Females in My Life;” appropriately, the actor arrived at the theater with his 6-year-old daughter, Coco, whom he conceived with Cox after grueling fertility treatments. He proceeded to show Coco around the stage, and the French glass doors on the set where he would make his flamboyant entrance on opening night. “Coco, this is my first line,” he demonstrated, as she happily ran around back stage.
Arquette came across as funny and sweet — he even hugged me — but also vulnerable and self-effacing as he spoke about the females in his life. Here are some excerpts from our February 2010 interview:
NPM: Tell me about the inscription on your wedding ring.
DA: Yes, it does say, “A deal’s a deal,” inscribed on the inside. I love that I get to wear it in this play; for most roles I usually have to take my wedding ring off, and it’s always a bummer.
NPM: Do you see any similarities between Coco and yourself as a child?
DA: I can see in my daughter that she’s a little bit of a joker; she has fun, she’s a little silly…Maybe I was a lot more sensitive as a kid. I fought through a lot of insecurities, and I still do (laughs). I get social anxiety at parties, just any kind of bigwig Hollywood function (sighs); it just drives me crazy.
NPM: You did marry someone who is prominent in Hollywood.
DA: But Courtney is great; she is awesome, and she actually is so real and confident. I mean, she’s got her insecurities, too, but she’s very much at a place where she doesn’t really care about [celebrity]; she takes people for how they are and what they’re doing—their actions speak for themselves—and she’ll call anybody on being full of it.
NPM: Including you?
DA: Oh, all the time. She totally balances me.
NPM: In an interview with Barbara Walters, [Cox] said that she had felt a bit insecure, early in your relationship, about all the beautiful women you were known to have had on your arm before you met.
DA: I guess I would be nervous around girls sometimes, but I’d find a way to sort of charm them, or try to charm, and I could see if somebody was sort of interested. That always seems odd to me now; it just seems so foreign, like another person back then.
NPM: How do you handle being married to someone who is much more successful than you are as an actor?
DA: That really does bug me. It’s not jealousy as much as I just have a drive to be successful; it’s ingrained in men to be, like, the breadwinner, and the type of success you get on a show like ‘Friends’ [Cox’s NBC hit] is a very rare opportunity. But I’m getting less and less concerned with it and more and more accepting.”
NPM: How do you remember your own parents’ marriage?
DA: It was difficult; we were struggling a lot with money. [Arquette was born on a Virginia religious commune his parents co-founded that embraced aspects of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, but later moved to Los Angeles.] And my parents had a very tumultuous relationship. They loved each other deeply but they also were very different and they separated when I was around 18, but never got a divorce. And then on my dad’s deathbed [while Arquette was shooting the action comedy, “Eight Legged Freaks”] he said, “Your mother was always the love of my life.” That was so sad. It’s one of my big philosophies in life that, for men, if you’re going to be married and have kids, you have to make it work. Obviously if you’re in a bad relationship, it’s one thing, but some of the time, it’s you, and there’s a lot of work to be done on both sides. And I think men often have like a ‘grass is greener’ outlook on life and can easily be tempted into running off or just not wanting to be held down. But it’s really important to work through things, to understand each other and try to be the best person you can be.
NPM: How do you regard your family life?
DA: I’m unavailable to other people. My heart is closed, reserved for Courtney, my family and Coco, on a relationship level.
David, you are a sweetheart. Good luck with your continuing sobriety and self-reflection—and may you create the family life that you most desire.
April 12, 2011 | 5:30 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
I just got a call from a spokesperson for Justin Bieber, who said the teenaged superstar appreciated my defending him in my previous post, “Justin Bieber Israel Drama: Give Bieber a Break.” But, the spokesperson added, the facts reported by some of the Israeli press (which I quoted) were incorrect, and Bieber would like to set the record straight.
Some outlets had reported that Bieber had had a meeting scheduled with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the night before his April 14 performance at Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park; that Bibi had taken advantage of the PR opportunity by inviting children who had been affected by the Gaza rocket fire to said meeting; that Bieber had subsequently declined to meet the children; and that Netyanyahu then canceled the meeting.
“There was never a meeting with [Netanyahu] actually scheduled,” the spokesperson, who asked to be referred to as “a member of Justin Bieber’s camp,” said. “We were talking about it but it never was scheduled.” The reason the meeting didn’t happen, he added, is because information kept leaking as to the logistics—and because the paparazzi situation had been so “brutal.” And since the meeting was never scheduled, “it was never canceled and it certainly didn’t have anything to do with the kids,” the spokesperson said. In fact, Bieber had already reached out to those children, and had invited them to be his guests at his concert on April 14.
Here’s a statement from Bieber’s people:
“Despite some logistical challenges, Justin is enjoying his first trip to Israel. Justin welcomes the chance to meet with kids facing difficult circumstances, regardless of their background, and in fact, he had already invited children from the Sderot area to be his guest at the concert in Tel Aviv on Thursday night.”
Here’s hoping that Bieber, a devout Christian who had been looking forward to “walking in Jesus’ footsteps,” can enjoy the rest of his first visit to the Holy Land.
April 12, 2011 | 3:08 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Headlines are buzzing that Justin Bieber declined to meet a group of children affected by Gaza rocket fire during his highly-publicized trip to Israel. And that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in response, canceled his scheduled meeting with the teenaged superstar, which was to take place the day before Bieber’s show at Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park on April 14.
To which I say: Give Bieber a break. Bibi Netanyahu took advantage of the public relations opportunity offered by his meeting with the global superstar to invite the children to attend, according to haaretz.com. Bieber apparently canceled after learning of this curveball. The singer is just 17, and he’s been burned before—thrust into political hot water when a Rolling Stone reporter—very inappropriately, I might add—asked the then-16-year-old to comment on abortion and other political issues.
Bieber has hinted about his feelings in several recent tweets: ” i want to see this country and all the places ive dreamed of and whether its the paps [paparazzi] or being pulled into politics its been frustrating,” one tweet read.
[Related: Rise of the Jewish Justin Biebers]
Other tweets stated: “i’m in the holy land and i am grateful for that. I just want to have the same personal experience that others have here” and “You would think paparazzi would have some respect in holy places. All I wanted was the chance to walk where jesus did here in isreal.”
While other artists have declined to perform in Israel for political and/or security reasons, Bieber and his mother, Pattie Mallette, a born-again Christian, were excited about visiting the Holy Land, Bieber’s manager, Scott “Scooter” Braun” told me in February, when I spoke to him about the documentary “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. “Justin told me he wanted to rearrange his touring schedule because he wants to do seder in Israel,” Braun—who has become Bieber’s Jewish “father figure” —said in a phone interview.
When I asked if Bieber was going to visit sites such as Yad Vashem, Braun said, “He wants to see it all. And it’s not just him; I want to take the entire crew, put them on tour buses and let them see the country. And can I be clear on something? It isn’t just about going to Israel. If the right situation presented itself and we got invited to go to Egypt [note: Braun said this before the democracy-related unrest] or Jordan or any of these places, we’d go as well, because at the end of the day, music isn’t something that’s supposed to be held to one group or another.”
Bieber’s Tel Aviv concert is expected to draw some 60,000 viewers; let’s hope the experience proves a positive one for the young singer, who seems like a real mensch. He even recites the “Shema” with Braun before every one of his shows, in part, to make the Jewish members of his crew feel at home.
Bieber and his crew had been gathering in “prayer circles” before each performance, led by Mallette: “I felt like if we were going to say a prayer ‘in Jesus’ name, amen,’ that Dan Kanter [the show’s music director] and I, who are Jewish, should be represented as well,” Braun said. “We’d do the same if we had someone Muslim or Hindu in the group – we’re all-inclusive. So Dan and I would say the ‘Shema,’ and after the third show, as we were about to say it, Justin chimed in. I asked him, ‘What the heck was that?’ and he goes, ‘I memorized it.’ He was like, ‘This is something Jesus would have said, right?’ and I said, ‘yes,’ and he’s like, ‘Then I want to say it with you guys.’ I explained that it’s one of our holiest prayers, and that it means the Lord is one and he thought that was cool. He knows it’s in ancient Hebrew; he knows that Jesus would have said it and since Dan and I are every close to him, he wanted us to feel included as well. He’s a very special kid.”
April 8, 2011 | 6:39 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Paul Reiser eyes his agent warily in an upcoming episode of “The Paul Reiser Show,” the writer-actor-comedian’s new half-hour comedy on NBC, which closely resembles his real life. In the scene, it’s been some years since Reiser’s megahit “Mad About You” went off the air, and the agent is gushing that he’s found the actor a great movie role. “Is he a Jew?” Reiser asks, suspiciously. “The nice guy, sweet husband, Jew?... vaguely Semitic – the implied ‘ethnicity?’”
Reiser, of course, is poking fun at himself, and at anyone who might typecast him as the kind of menschy husband he played on “Mad About You.” In that ’90s sitcom, he and Helen Hunt starred as newlyweds in a show that was also based on Reiser’s own experience.
The absurdities of life after superstardom figure prominently in his new series, as does Reiser’s psychotherapist wife (Amy Landecker of “A Serious Man”), his two sons and a circle of buddies thrust upon him either because they are married to his wife’s friends or are fathers of his children’s playmates.
Like Jerry Seinfeld most famously did, but also Matt LeBlanc in “Episodes” and Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Reiser is the latest celebrity to create a comedy-as-self-portrait. David even appears in the pilot on April 14 to suggest that Reiser should be doing his own version of “Curb.”
At 54, Reiser – whose role in the ensemble cast of “Diner” (1982) kickstarted his career, is almost as well known for his autobiographical best-sellers, the latest of which, “Familyhood,” will hit stores in May.
He said any resemblance between “The Paul Reiser Show” and “Curb,” in particular, is incidental. “The impetus for this series was a very nice guy at Warner Brothers saying ‘We think it’s time for you to come back,’” he recalled. “And I very humbly said, ‘That’s so nice, but I don’t really want to. It’s hard – and why?’ But the guy continued to be very persuasive and flattering, and I am a sucker for that. So while I didn’t know if there was a groundswell of demand for me out there, I decided to go write and see what happened. And because I don’t know how to make things up, I kind of wrote my own life again.”
Reiser describes the premise early in the show: “I have everything I have ever dreamed of. The only problem is, I’m not dead yet.”
“If I were 97, my life would have timed-out perfectly,” he explained in a telephone interview. “But, hopefully, I have many more years left, so the question is, what do I do next?’”
While Larry David’s comedy hinges on his antisocial behavior wreaking absurd consequences, Reiser’s stems from good intentions that go horribly wrong. “‘Bad’ is funny,” Reiser said. In one sequence, his character is videotaped selling gift-wrap for a school fundraiser, which later appears on a website titled, celebrityhumiliation.com, in a segment that describes him as a broke and forced to sell goods out of his car for cash.
“There’s [another] joke where I say I’m just famous enough where if I were caught in a motel room with a coyote, it would be on TV,” Reiser said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called a restaurant and thought, ‘Maybe they’ll know my name and we’ll get a good table’ – but, nope, the guy never heard of me. But if I got caught picking my hose at a red light, I’m just famous enough that there would be a shot of me on YouTube: ‘Former Golden Boy picking his nose.’ That’s the crazy reality of my life.”
Another unusual aspect of Reiser’s status emerges in that sequence about the supposedly “great” movie role: “I have such a peculiar relationship with my agents,” he said. “I love my agent, and he’s tickled he’s in the show, by proxy, but I said, ‘Did you notice the guy’s an idiot?’ I marvel at the whole agency; they’ve never found me a job, ever, since ‘Mad About You’s’ been off the air. I know that at this point in my life, I’m not going to be George Clooney, or Leonardo, but I can’t be that universally loathed… Yet to be fair, I have given them mixed messages: ‘Get me work, but I don’t want to to work too hard;’ ‘I don’t want to play my own familiar self, but I don’t want to stretch so much that I look terrible.’”
Reiser knows that observers are wondering why NBC delayed premiering his show; his wry response is that the old regime was in fourth place for a reason, and suggests that the recently appointed new one is smarter. “If you deliver the Jews, I’ll get everyone else,” he tells a reporter of his show. “I’ll go after the Methodists and the Catholics; I just need you to get me every Jew with a TV set in their house.”
The fictional Reisers are Jewish because the real ones are, too. Reiser grew up in the 1960s in Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town, a heavily Jewish and Irish-American housing development on the Lower East Side, where the sound of hippies playing drums would waft in through the windows of his classes at the East Side Hebrew Institute.
He began performing at comedy clubs while majoring in music at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and went on to star in TV shows such as “My Two Dads” before “Mad About You” made him a household name during the sitcom’s seven seasons, from 1992 to 1999.
Like Seinfeld’s TV character, the fictional Paul Buchman on “Mad About You” seemed Jewish but was never explicitly named as a member of the Tribe. That irked some Jewish pundits – along with the assumption that Reiser and Hunt portrayed an interfaith couple. “My goal with ‘Mad About You’ was to have the Jewishness be presumed, but never stated,” Reiser acknowledged. “But I still bristle to this day when people make a big deal of ‘He’s Jewish; she’s Gentile.’ We never mentioned that her character is not Jewish…. Helen, in fact, is part Jewish, and to me her character was always Jewish. Any girl who is smart and funny and can quote a Mel Brooks record is as Jewish as I need them to be.”
As for Reiser’s own religious life, he said, “We’re pretty Jewish; we have our seders, and we have our big Chanukah parties with the kids.” His oldest son, Ezra Samuel, who was born six weeks premature and has used a wheelchair since birth, had his bar mitzvah two years ago in a ceremony so moving that guests told Reiser they were inspired to themselves pursue becoming b’nai mitzvah.
In “Familyhood,” Reiser said, “There is a specific chapter about my eldest son, which was a landmark for me to do. I hadn’t really written about him before, but I was glad once I got to the other side of it.”
Reiser even hired an actor who uses a wheelchair to play one of his sons on his new show. “But we’re not going to make a big deal of it and we’re not going to see either kid too much,” he said.
The boy’s disability does come up, in a more serious manner, in the episode in which Reiser and his wife re-write their wills. “We do make a joke about [that], which was an important joke for me to be able to make, and then we move past it,” Reiser said.
“Not that we’re being flip, but for these characters, this is simply a part of life. Kids have issues, and you deal with those issues every day.”