Matt Damon plays David Norris, a young politician who rose to prominence from “telling it is like it is” and now facing a lag in his career having lost his passion. As often occurs with politicians, his fire is reignited in a restroom by another human being. This time it’s the free-spirited Elise Sallas (Emily Blunt), who’s on the run from hotel security for crashing an upstairs wedding. The two flirt for a few minutes before kissing, and she scampers off without so much as dropping her name, and David goes on to deliver your standard “stick-it-to-the-phony-baloneys” speech, and, naturally it’s a hit with the voters.
Cut to three years later, when David takes the bus one morning and runs into Elise, much to the mysterious consternation of Harry (Anthony Mackie), a well-dressed gentleman who carries a tome that looks like a living circuitry grid. While he chases down the bus, David and Elise pick up their banter and he even gets her number.
However, when David shows up to his office, he walks in while it’s in a state of suspended animation, complete with scary-looking men in hazmat suits apparently performing some kind of containment. The men give chase, and David finds himself in a large room getting talked down to by the white-haired Richardson (John Slattery), who works for the shadowy-named Adjustment Bureau and evidently possesses the ability to control the environment. He tells David to stay away from Elise or else he’ll erase his mind.
Up to then, The Adjustment Bureau lives up to its trailer as a Matrix-themed thriller, but after that the movie takes an abrupt turn and metamorphizes into something closer to a romantic comedy. David, of course, refuses to abide by the Bureau’s threats and persists in his courtship of Elise and hence is pursued by the aptly named Bureau, whose bureaucrats are far too incompetent to approach anything nearing an efficient prevention of the forbidden love. In fact, they take on the cartoonish villainy of an evil Disney stepmother or foppish ex-boyfriend, whose only purpose is to place some traffic cones on the road to a happy ever after.
It never quite works. As a thriller, it falters because the stakes are rusty and dull; the worst that could happen to David is that he’ll have no knowledge of his former life, but since we know little of it, and since that little we do know is not much worth knowing, a “reset” David wouldn’t be too different from the current one. The only loss we’d feel would be the potential happiness he maybe could have possibly found with Elise. And even then, how much of a loss would it be? The movie doesn’t seem very interested in her character, supplanting personality with your standard manic pixie dream girl quirks. Case in point: Early on she broadcasts her free spirit by impulsively dropping David’s phone into his coffee. Hilarious.
Damon, whom I know to be a very talented actor, is playing a second-rate Jason Bourne (the director, George Nolfi, was also co-writer for the Bourne films): When the movie requires him to run, he runs, when it requires him to look confused, he scrunches his face well, but when it requires him to fling woo at Blunt, there’s none of the subtle body language or unspoken grokking movie reviewers typically refer to as “chemistry.” This is a film where we know the two are in love because they tell themselves and everyone else nearby that they are.
The worst I can say about The Adjustment Bureau is that its action is flaccid and its romance is forced and riddled with everything they teach you in the first semester of Screenwriting 101 and tell you to avoid in the second. The script is lazy, the concept is silly (and when the secrets of the Bureau are revealed, it’s even sillier), and the characters are no deeper than the indentation of a pencil.
And yet, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. For all its flaws, the abrupt change in tone from thriller to romance actually helps the movie, providing a good number of laughs (whether intentional or not), and it maintains a light touch all throughout that makes it more fun than ponderous. To see that from a Phillip K. Dick story was a pleasant surprise, but ultimately you’ll be laughing at it more than with it.