Matt Damon plays David Norris (no relation), a congressman running for a senate seat in New York. Unfortunately, he’s losing, and on election night, right before he has to give his concession speech, he goes into a supposedly empty men’s room to rehearse. There he meets Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), a dancer who is crashing a wedding at the same hotel. Sparks fly between the two immediately, and the charge David gets from meeting Elise actually helps revitalize his political career.
However, despite the evidence to the contrary, the two aren’t supposed to be together. It isn’t in the Plan. David soon notices weird men in fedoras following him around. These are the titular members of the Adjustment Bureau, and they ake sure everything happens as it is supposed to. They prefer to act as unobtrusively as possible—some lost keys here, a spilled cup of coffee there—but if more drastic measures are called for, they can freeze time and reset your brain. After David discovers what is going on, these mysterious men tell him that if he and Elise stay together, it will kill both their dreams.
Are they angels? Is it God that writes the plan? The movie never really answers, preferring to let us apply the metaphor of our choice. A trio of fine supporting actors provides the faces of the bureau. John Slattery (Mad Men) is Richardson, a middle manager who is more put-upon than sinister. Terence Stamp plays Thompson, a higher up nicknamed The Hammer who is brought in when Damon needs a little more convincing. And Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) is Harry, Damon’s personal guardian angel who has followed him for years, grown to like him and wants to help him out.
Damon and Blunt have terrific chemistry together, which is good, because without it there really wouldn’t be much of a movie. The two actually have relatively little time together, what with all the magical forces trying to keep them apart, so the film hinges on the few scenes they do share. And by and large these scenes are great, full of witty banter between two people who actually seem drawn to each other. During the pair’s initial meeting in the hotel men’s room, it actually feels as if there is some sort of love at first sight happening. Damon plays the scene both as being smitten with Blunt and simultaneously amazed at the fact that he could be hitting it off with someone so quickly.
The film was adapted from a short story, “The Adjustment Team,” by writer Philip K. Dick, a perennial candidate for poor treatment from scriptwriters. The tendency with many Dick adaptations has been to take the story’s central concept and tack a traditional action movie framework onto it, as in Total Recall and Minority Report. This film digs a little more deeply into the spiritual concerns that ran through many of Dick’s stories, but instead of grafting on action, here the Dick (Dickian? Dickish?) concept has a romantic comedy overlay. You have all the meet-cutes, misunderstandings and tearful reunions that can be found in most romantic comedies, but here they’re caused by a gigantic sci-fi conspiracy.
Despite its fantastic premise, the movie remains as character driven as possible throughout, and avoids melodrama whenever possible. For example, David is told that being with Elise will ruin his political dreams not because it will cause some unfortunate chain of events to unfold, but because being loved by her will sate the need for adoration from the public that fueled his political ambition in the first place.
The movie was scripted and directed by George Nolfi, who wrote The Bourne Ultimatum. Because of this and the film’s science fiction elements, again, one might be expecting an action film, but that’s not what Nolfi is going for here. Still, there are a couple of nifty little foot chases that use special effects sparingly, but effectively. The Bureau members’ magic hats (yep) give the wearers access to a network of doors that allow them to, say, enter a door in downtown Manhattan and come out in center field of Yankee Stadium. These scenes are simple, but surprisingly effective.
The movie raises a lot of big questions, but the answers it provides aren’t very deep. You may not be all that surprised to find out that in the question of fate vs. free will, the answer is a little bit of both. The film always keeps the stakes surprisingly low, considering the implications of the premise. To David and Elise, their romantic lives feel like life-and-death matters, but it never feels like there is any real danger of their being killed, or of Damon’s brain being erased. Everybody is doing what they think is right. As the title suggests, the adjusters act very much like bureaucrats. Slattery’s character spends most of his time bemoaning the fact that a potentially career-making case ended up being such a hassle.
The premise of The Adjustment Bureau implies many uncomfortable depths that could have been plumbed, but the filmmakers are content with using their story to ask whether love, indeed, does conquer all, and when we’re watching Damon and Blunt together we don’t mind. This may not make for a film that provides deep answers to the existential question it raises, but it does give us a charming, playful romance that is slight, but ultimately satisfying.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.