Movie Review

The Adjustment Bureau

'Bureau' of interference: Damon, Blunt overcome meddling of mysterious plot points and men in suits in romantic thriller

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / March 4, 2011

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Matt Damon spends “The Adjustment Bureau’’ running from mysterious men in coordinated hats and gray suits. The most dapper and therefore most powerful of them even wears a scarf. Damon’s character, a failed Senate candidate named David Norris, asks many questions about his situation but never, “Why’s a GQ photo shoot chasing me?’’ Whether this movie works for you largely depends on whether you’re willing to work for it. To which I say: Bring your gym clothes.

David loses the election after old photos surface of him behaving badly in public. Minutes before he delivers his concession speech, he meets a charismatic English dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt). At a men’s room sink, they share a well-acted conversation, then a kiss. She runs off. He concedes the election in shocking style (for a politician), pulling back the curtain on the political stagecraft. And the two have another memorable, if impossible random encounter on a Manhattan bus. They appear to have something.

David feels like politics has controlled his life. The suits represent the title organization, which is committed to fighting free will. Having these well-dressed men, played by Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Anthony Ruivivar, and Terence Stamp, tell him he wasn’t meant to be with Elise only makes him want her all the more. The suits can read minds. They’re the guys who kill phone lines and make you miss trains. They make sure you spill coffee on yourself. They’re apparently the group Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic’’ was about.

If David tells anyone about the agency, they’ll have to wipe his brain, which sounds like a real hassle for them. Couldn’t they just order those short-term-memory-erasing wands from “Men in Black’’? The place seems bureaucratic to the hilt. In any case, they tell David that if he continues to pursue Elise, he could ruin both their careers. He could be president. She could be the next Twyla Tharp. The movie furnishes many embarrassing scenes of her writhing to music. Having seen them, I think David should rescue the future of dance and marry her. (The montages of David being fawned over on the campaign trail are almost as bad.)

The source of the bureau’s budget for tailoring and all those fedoras is unclear. So, really, is its larger point. Are these plans for David and, apparently the rest of us, master plans? If so, the bureau doesn’t seem to have a lot of contingencies. David’s always outsmarting it. Are its agents human? Mortal? Do they eat or laugh? The bigger idea of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception’’ was just as muddy. Unlike Nolan, the writer and director of “The Adjustment Bureau,’’ George Nolfi, has very few tricks to keep us from minding.

There’s some time-and-space business, in which, say, a doorknob turned at New York city hall opens onto the field at Yankee Stadium. Those are nice stunts, but they’re always more baffling than they are entertaining. Once David pops out near what appears to be a coat check. One of the workers walks in bewilderment from one side of the frame to other, passing through the door-shaped effect of the space David’s just left. What does she see? The only logic that matters in science-fiction is the material’s. Nolfi is a screenwriter (he co-wrote “Ocean’s Twelve’’ and “The Bourne Ultimatum’’) directing his first movie, and he’s proceeded before first working out its visual sense.

The movie has been vaguely taken from “The Adjustment Team,’’ a Philip K. Dick story that was published in 1954 about an average husband caught up in a big mess. The movie borrows Dick’s basic premise and hangs to the story’s moment of discovery, then turns it into one of its many foot chases. The movie lacks the simmering sociopolitical paranoia and insidious conspiracy that made Dick a kick to read. He was always onto something, and what makes the prospect of adapting him for the movies fun is whether a filmmaker will see what he does. Not this time.

What the movie has going for it are Damon and Blunt. Damon doesn’t have George Clooney’s intimidating charisma or Brad Pitt’s caveman beauty. He’s eased into a mild stockiness that I hope he won’t change. It’s an asset. Right now too many stars look sick with diet, like they’re spending more time with trainers and nutritionists rather than with acting coaches or normal people. Damon’s seeming normality is his secret weapon as a star. When David leans over to hug Elise, the fullness of Damon’s face intensifies the remorse that comes over it. There’s mercifully more of it to see.

No one in the movies has Blunt’s overcaffeinated zip. You certainly get why a politician would hang it all up for her: She’s fun. Of course, one of the biggest problems is that he’d have to. The movie could have whipped up smokier moral shadows. It could have made Elise warier of David’s mental health. But “The Adjustment Bureau’’ is ultimately just a simple romance about a man fighting bureaucratic fate to be with a woman.

Indeed, the most interesting thing in the film is how it encourages us to see the bureau as a kind of celestial federal agency. As it monkeys with David and Elise’s lives, breaking their hearts, showing up in her bedroom, deliberately trying to keep them apart, the movie gives the Tea Party something new to fear: Now the government wants to take over love.

Wesley Morris can be reached at or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU Written and directed by: George Nolfi, adapted from “The Adjustment Team,’’ a short story by Philip K. Dick

Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, David Kelly, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, and Terence Stamp

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 106 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (strong language, some sexuality and a violent image)

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