Spring break is for grading exams but also for skiing and movie-going. My bad judgment was to believe some of the good reviews garnered by The Adjustment Bureau. It's an inept movie that begins with a clever idea but cannot figure out where to go. The conceit, based on a Philip K. Dick story, is that there is a plan for each human, and that when any of us drifts from our plan, a small adjustment is administered by overworked angels (who circulate among us in 1960s’ fedoras and suits) in order to nudge us back on our intended paths. At the start, an angel falls asleep and misses the assigned moment to nudge Matt Damon away from a distracting Emily Blunt, and then our hero proves too headstrong to be nudged back to his path, which involves a rising political career. He discovers the existence and ways of the Adjustment Bureau and rebels against it, so that he and his not-so-intended might live happily ever after. At one point he asks a middle-management angel about the loss of free will and is told that "we" tried that with you guys for several long periods, but each time you botched it (most recently with world wars, depressions, and a holocausts), and so here we are.
The film is not without its charms. The angels cannot function without their hats. I took this to be a cute joke about head coverings in some religions and bare heads in others. Indeed, an important angel wears a hat and a scarf - a fun tallit, or an even better, maniple joke. As the film wandered toward its predictable conclusion, I found myself wishing that Damon had asked a better question. Every observed adjustment was a mishap. The adjuster, or angel, tries to cause a coffee spill in order to get a character to head home. A dancer falls and sprains an ankle. Phone lines go dead. Damon is prevented from escaping by an administered trip in a parking garage, and he falls flat on his face. A car crash is summoned to prevent him from finding his love interest. We learn that his father and brother were killed in a car crash in order to adjust Damon's political career. Why, he might have asked, do you guys always use sticks instead of carrots? Why spilled coffees and car crashes instead of lucky coincidences, lottery winnings, and other goodies?
The larger, intellectual question about organized religions is why some encourage humans to fear higher power while others focus on rewards (and others a mix). The question is an important one for legal systems, and a rich academic literature puzzles over the use of subsidies and taxes, rewards and fines, and more. If the message of the movie had been that a system of behavior control that relies only on penalties is inferior to one that cleverly mixes penalties and rewards, after taking moral hazards and baseline considerations into account, then it might have been a worthy film.
And then there is the question of why we go to bad movies, and what might be done about that. Films are reviewed, by professionals and by acquaintances, but of course not everyone has the same taste as the reviewer. Netflix famously tackles this with its algorithm, recently improved in response to a substantial prize. It assumes, more or less, that each of us has different but fixed preferences. A quibble about that algorithm is that it is account-specific, rather than person-specific. A family rents movies and then rates the movies in order to help determine Netflix's recommendations for further rentals. Netflix uses the aggregated information to recommend movies to all its subscribers. The first point is that the system might be improved if different members of the household had different rating accounts. The second point is to puzzle over the difficulty of developing such algorithms and recommendations for movies while they are still in theaters. Netflix takes on the easier task of predicting tastes based on a very large number of observations – including the target movie itself. If many viewers submitted their ratings during the first weekend of a movie's run, it is possible that those who waited just a week (or one evening?) would learn a good deal about whether they would like the movie in question. Unfortunately, it is difficult to charge for such a service, and no studio or chain of theaters has much of an incentive to sponsor this pooling and application of information. But given the progress we are making with information markets, and smartphones as networking devices, we will get there one day.