Fate or free will? It’s an interesting question, the kind that stoned college sophomores contemplate while passing the bong in the dorm room.
Unfortunately, the deck is stacked in George Nolfi’s “The Adjustment Bureau,” an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story. Oh, the humanity.
Because, in a movie that takes only the concept but not the plot of Dick’s story, there seems to be no real threat or jeopardy. Only personal romance seems to be at stake – and it’s hard to get too worked up about that.
Matt Damon plays David Norris, an upstart from Brooklyn who’s a favorite to be elected to the U.S. Senate from New York until a last-minute scandal derails him. As he gathers himself in a Waldorf men’s room before making his concession speech, he discovers he’s not alone – there’s a young woman hiding in one of the stalls.
Her name is Elise (Emily Blunt) and the two of them hit it off almost immediately – so much so that they share a kiss that promises a future.
After giving a concession speech that rouses the audience, Norris goes to work for a law firm – but he’s being shadowed by a group of gray-suited types in fedoras, led by John Slattery and Anthony Mackie. There is mysterious back-and-forth between this pair, in which Slattery reminds Mackie that his assignment is to spill coffee on Norris before 7:10 a.m. as Norris strolls through Manhattan’s Madison Square Park.
But Mackie is asleep on a park bench as Norris strolls by – and Norris then catches a glimpse of Elise riding a bus down Broadway. He gives chase, catches the bus and renews the acquaintance. But now he’s messed with the space-time continuum – or something of that sort.
Which means that, when he gets to his office, he’s someplace he’s not supposed to be. His coworkers, it seems, are in a state of suspended animation – except for that Hat Squad, led by Slattery and Mackie. They capture him and take him to a large, empty warehouse, where they explain what’s what.
Which is that, basically, there is a plan for everything in the world. But every once in a while, those quirky, unpredictable humans do something to screw it up. So it’s up to this group – the bureau of the title – to step in, hit pause, scramble people’s brains just a little and set things back on course. And Norris’ course does not include Elise.
Norris, however, is enough of a troublemaker to rebel against the idea that he can’t exercise free will and determine the course of his own life. Though he is forced to lose Elise’s phone number, he spends the next three years searching for her. And when he finds her again, he brings down the force of the entire Adjustment Bureau on their heads.
Which means … what? Well, the group’s enforcer, Thompson, is played by Terence Stamp (who ought to have an onscreen blue-eyed staredown with Malcolm McDowell someday). And he comes after Norris with full force.
Except that, well, not to put too fine a point on it, but this Adjustment Bureau seems a little too goody-good for the film to gain any sort of tension by Thompson’s entrance. The bottom line is that the enforcers can’t kill Norris because that, too, would disrupt the order of things. So what can they do against a determined man who wants to chart his own fate?
And that’s the problem with “The Adjustment Bureau”: Not all that much seems to be at stake here, other than the future of these two characters. And as likable as Damon and Blunt are – and as easy as their chemistry seems to be – the whole plot seems like a lot of frenzied action in pursuit of very little objective.
At one point, Norris asks Mackie whether the squad members are, in fact, angels: “Some people calls us that,” Mackie says, as though anyone’s idea of an angel is someone who looks like a “Mad Men” extra. And, really, as much of a wildman as Philip K. Dick was, it’s hard to imagine him being thrilled about one of his stories being turned into a glorified episode of “Touched by an Angel.”
Oh sure, there are cool special effects. The adjusters’ hats allow them to use any door as a portal from one part of the city to another. So, when Norris acquires a hat with which to escape the adjusters with Elise in tow, he opens a door in SoHo and walks on to the field at Yankee Stadium, then opens another door and escapes to Liberty Island. Neat trick, but so what?
Never mind the religious overlay here (references to “the Big Man,” as though the adjusters are, in fact, helping to carry out God’s plan). Ultimately, either you can do what you want – or you can’t. It would take a much more clever script than this one by director George Nolfi – one in which the odds against Norris are much greater than they are here – for “The Adjustment Bureau” to be the kind of mind-twisting thriller this film falls short of being.