For its first hour and a half, George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau (Universal) presents a plan so crazy that it just might work: a science-fiction romantic thriller that zigzags between back-room political intrigue, moony-eyed love scenes, and extended modern-dance sequences, with periodic detours into a labyrinthine alternate universe populated entirely by fedora-wearing … angels? What emerges from the chaos may be uneven and at times ridiculous, but it’s never boring. The Adjustment Bureau is based on a short story, “The Adjustment Team,” by Philip K. Dick, that most paranoid (and most frequently adapted) of science-fiction writers. And while this film is far sunnier and more romantic than your average Dick story, it does capture something of the author’s cerebral yet playful style. It’s a shame that the rushed and sentimental ending does such a miserable job of wrapping up the loose ends—of which this movie has so many, it’s practically fringed.
We begin in the familiar world of the political thriller, as dark-horse Senate candidate David Norris (Matt Damon) watches his campaign crash and burn just before election night thanks to an extraordinarily tame-seeming secret from his past. (In what world does mooning someone at a college hazing provoke a political scandal?) Practicing his concession speech in a hotel men’s room, David comes upon a beautiful English dancer, Elise (Emily Blunt), who’s hiding from hotel security after crashing a wedding. They launch into a conversation that, given the circumstances, is curiously intimate. Before he leaves to concede the election, they share a single kiss.
It’s a stretch to accept that both David and Elise’s lives are changed by this glancing encounter, but between Damon and Blunt’s nuanced performances and the hey-it’s-a-movie factor, we somehow buy it. When they meet up by chance three years later on a city bus, the connection is still there, and Elise gives David her number. This scene ends wonderfully, with Blunt, a world-class flirt, saying goodbye with a smile and an extended middle finger. The stolid and earthbound David makes an odd pair with this lithe, mercurial woman, but Damon skillfully uses that physical mismatch to his advantage. We really believe that, for the first time, she’s opened up his world.
It’s right around this point that The Adjustment Bureau starts to get weird. A supernatural angle emerges: two men in fedoras, Richardson and Harry (Mad Men’s John Slattery and The Hurt Locker’s Anthony Mackie), somehow seem to know that David will meet Elise on that bus, and they’re deeply invested in making it not happen. Stranger still, Harry carries a notebook that contains knowledge about David’s future movements. What manner of beings are these seemingly omniscient men in natty headgear, and why do they care so much whether or not a failed politician hooks up with a struggling modern dancer?
The Adjustment Bureau is the directorial debut of George Nolfi, who co-wrote both The Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean’s Twelve. He also adapted this screenplay from Dick’s very short story, with considerable narrative expansion and embellishment—the original story contains no courtship angle at all while the movie hinges on the cosmic significance of David and Elise’s love. Are they meant to be together or meant not to be? If they try to escape the machinations of the romance-preventing bureaucrats, are they merely playing into the bad guys’ hands? And are the bad guys really even bad?
The Adjustment Bureau isn’t a somber, elegant meditation on free will and destiny like Blade Runner (another adaptation of a Philip K. Dick work).But at its most winning—that is to say, before it founders in sticky sentiment and labored exposition—it doesn’t try to be. Unlike most movies of its genre—films in which a character’s paranoid conspiracy theory about unseen forces turns out to be all too true—this one doesn’t take place in a dark, gritty, dystopic world. Instead, The Adjustment Bureau’s tone is almost wry, with the lovers engaging in teasing banter and the “adjusters” bickering over matters of procedure. Whose professional incompetence caused Elise and David to meet up again on that fateful bus, and who will have to answer to the bureau’s imposing higher-up Thompson (Terence Stamp)?
The film’s final chase sequence is a dizzyingly surreal race through a series of iconic New York locations—the reading room of the main Manhattan public library, Liberty Island, Yankee Stadium—that connect to one another by a set of doors invisible to anyone not versed in the rules of the bureau. And then, high atop a building overlooking Central Park, comes the final scene, which—I think I can say this without fear of spoilage—blows. After all the work the movie has done to make us root for David and Elise’s connection, or puzzle over the arcane laws that govern their universe, the ending feels like a lazy do-over, a cosmic “never mind!” There was room for this final scene (which completely rewrites the Dick story) to be both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. Instead, in a curious act of abdication, the film gives up on engaging its viewers’ brains, as if unaware that, in doing so, it will lose our hearts as well.