Does the fate of the world hang on the chance meeting in a men’s room of an aspiring politician and a saucy ballerina? Yes. Well, maybe. Anyway, it does in The Adjustment Bureau. The movie is based on what I’d say was a hurried reading of an old Philip K. Dick short story called "Adjustment Team." Dick’s story featured a talking dog. Watching the movie, I missed that dog. He could’ve been fun. But this is a film in which fun is not overabundant.
Fortunately, it does have Matt Damon, keen and likable as always, and Emily Blunt, to whom sauciness is second nature. They go well together; they have chemistry. He’s David Norris. He was running for the New York State Senate before an embarrassing incident from his college days surfaced (dredged up by the damn New York Post, naturally), and he had to withdraw. She’s Elise Sellas, modern-dance star on the rise, and just moments after meeting in that men’s room (please don’t ask), she and David are wrapped in a full-face embrace. Then she has to run off. Can David find her again?
It’s going to be difficult. David is being shadowed by a quartet of slick-looking guys in gray hats, gray suits, gray ties, gray overcoats—wherever it is they’re from, gray is clearly the new black. Their job, for reasons mysterious at first, is to keep David and Elise apart. They’re pretty good at it, but not infallible. David keeps wandering off the reservation and getting back together with Elise. When David goes to work one day, he finds everybody in his corporate offices frozen in mid-motion, and the hat guys going over them in a garage-mechanic kind of way. They’re doing a “recalibration,” it seems. “We are the people who make sure things happen according to plan,” says one of them, a fellow named Richardson (John Slattery, of Mad Men). “You’ve just seen behind the curtain you’re not even supposed to know exists.”
The plan to which Richardson alludes—or the Plan, actually—is the work of an unseen eminence called the Chairman. In olden Hollywood days, this would have been code for God, and the hat guys would have been angels. God being a nonstarter in movie land at the moment, though, this person is just the Chairman, looking down on Manhattan from his own corporate headquarters in another part of town. And the hat guys aren’t angels. Or probably not. Take it or leave it. (Right-wing cultural-conspiracy enthusiasts will note with dismay that David is, for no relevant reason, a solar-energy proponent, and they’ll no doubt have a good grumble at the cameo appearances put in here by people like James Carville, Wolf Blitzer, Jon Stewart, and even one actual deity, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.)
David has a covert ally on the hat team, it turns out, a man with the very earthbound name of Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie). Harry lets David in on several hat secrets, among them the locations of magical doors that serve as shortcuts for him and his colleagues to make their way around the city. (Open one door and you’re in Yankee Stadium. Open another and you’re on Ellis Island. I didn’t notice a door into Per Se, with dinner and drinks comped, but it’s something they might look into.)
Before long, the David-and-Elise situation starts getting out of hand—there’s just no keeping these two apart. So the hat men have to call in an enforcer, a gent named Thompson. Thompson is cold, haughty, and sonorous—which is to say, he’s played by Terence Stamp. He lets David in on another secret, one concerning David’s future, which is all mapped out. All he has to do is never see Elise again. This is a tough call. Will David tell Thompson to stuff it? Will he opt instead for true love? Let’s move along.
The trailer for The Adjustment Bureau makes the movie seem like a gripping sci-fi thriller. If only. What we have here basically is the old story about free will versus predestination—not a brain-twister of the first freshness. Writer-director George Nolfi might have been better advised to embrace the sci-fi side of the tale, and to whip up some much-needed cheap thrills. As it is, the picture has no tension, because the hat squad has no real menace. Its biggest threat is to prevent Matt Damon from attaining vast political power. In some quarters, that might be looked upon as a good thing.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.