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The Adjustment Bureau

John Slattery and Matt Damon in The Adjustment Bureau

Here Comes Mr. Thompson

The Adjustment Bureau

For the first 10 minutes or so, you’d think you were watching a topical political melodrama. Alongside Matt Damon as David Norris, a New York congressman campaigning for the US Senate, are real-life public figures playing themselves supporting his campaign. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg stands with Damon in front of city hall for a few seconds. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright stand and smile at him in staged campaign-event settings, and one-time Bill Clinton honcho James (“it’s the economy, stupid”) Carville is seen and heard very briefly recreating his greasy good ol’ boy television-commentator persona. Jon Stewart turns up twice.

But The Adjustment Bureau isn’t about politics. It’s a romance fantasy, and very few of the people buying tickets to it are likely to be without generic expectations. The availability of categorical information about movies these days is abundant. So it will be clear enough to most prospective viewers that The Adjustment Bureau is intended to appeal disproportionately to young female consumers who may bring their less enthusiastic young male companions—a date night movie, in other words. Writer and first-time feature director George Nolfi (scripter of The Bourne Ultimatum) has certainly shaped his product that way. Although the Philip K. Dick story from which it was adapted had no love story, Nolfi’s version does, and it’s the central dynamic.

Nolfi gets the political preliminaries out of the way in short enough order. Having been touted as the favorite in the race, David suffers an ignominious defeat at the polls after the New York Post runs a drunken photo of him from his college days. Just before he’s to give his concession speech, he has a brief, fateful (mind that word) meet-cute contrivance of an encounter with a woman, Elise (Emily Blunt). When he re-encounters her weeks later, he realizes he’s smitten. It’s less clear what her response is.

But that’s going to be the least of David’s problems. He doesn’t know it yet, but his budding romance is a challenge to the natural order, indeed, to Providence—the movie’s Adjustment Bureau—and its supervision of human fate. David isn’t supposed to link up with this woman: The bureau has an altogether different destiny in store for him. Their meetings occurred because of a supervisory snafu.

The bureau, which regularly intervenes to change people’s decisions and expunge their memories of their former courses of action, acts forcefully to abort this new relationship. David, who gets a glimpse of the bureau in action due to the same supervisory fluke, is told by Mr. Richards (John Slattery), a sort of harried district manager, “You’ve just looked behind a curtain you weren’t supposed to know exists.” The bureau’s grey-suited, fedora-wearing operatives look like a cross between the old East German secret police and a team of accounting firm auditors. Curiously enough, it doesn’t seem to have any female staff.

Over the next several years, David has to struggle against the constraints and threats of this cosmic power, and eventually his own conscience, in trying to create his own destiny. Through much of its first half, Nolfi’s movie is engaging and amusing enough. Damon doesn’t seem taxed as he gives a straight-faced but charm-infused leading man performance. Blunt has less to work with. But if the movie’s conceit isn’t without promise, Nolfi’s embroidery and execution aren’t consistently successful. The movie suffers a little from an inadequacy of wit and style, sustaining elements of the best romantic fantasies. In fact, The Adjustment Bureau at least slightly resembles a hit movie from seven decades ago, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, even if that one was a comedy and Nolfi treats his material with some seriousness.

He doesn’t seem to have been consistently certain how to spin out his setup. He gives the story hard-to-follow complications and circumstances—like an explanation of the limits of Richards’ mind-reading capability and ordinary doorways that become magic, geography-shifting portals that don’t always work predictably—that become drags on the movie’s fluidity.

Still, as pop entertainment, it isn’t half-bad, particularly compared to most of the pictures pitched at broad audiences. If it doesn’t really resonate much in the imagination, The Adjustment Bureau does achieve a reasonably satisfying measure of superficial romantic intensity. When Terence Stamp appears as Mr. Thompson (in a crude analogue to Mr. Jordan’s Claude Rains), a senior executive sent by “The Chairman” to explain to David why free will is dangerously overrated, things acquire a nice faux gravitas.

If The Adjustment Bureau is a considerable distance from first rate, it’s a level or two above so many of the aggressively grungy recent films that purport to provide romantic entertainment.

Watch the trailer for The Adjustment Bureau

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