In “The Adjustment Bureau,” clothes make the man. The gentlemen who work for the title organization wear matching uniforms of tailored suits and fedoras, suggesting seriousness and professionalism. David Norris (played by Matt Damon), the rakish New Yorker running for a seat in the U.S. Senate, is keenly aware of how important his appearance is to potential voters, and how the wrong image at the wrong time can change the outcome of an election. A crucial moment in the blueprint of his life relies on an observer’s knowledge that if David were to spill coffee on his tie just after leaving his apartment building, he would go back upstairs and change it, even if it meant being late for work. Not everyone would do that, you know.
Yes, appearances are important in “The Adjustment Bureau,” a shrewdly entertaining mind-bender with elements of sci-fi, conspiracy, and espionage. Even those hats are vital to the order of things. Based on a story by Philip K. Dick (“Minority Report,” “Total Recall”), the film was made by George Nolfi, a screenwriter (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) making his directorial debut. The story requires you to go along with a few details that seem silly, but such is the nature of science fiction. This is exciting, thoughtful stuff, overall, and at its core deeply romantic.
David Norris, a Brooklyn boy who pulled himself up by the ol’ bootstraps to become a respected political figure, is about to deliver a difficult speech one night when he meets Elise (Emily Blunt), a beautiful, uninhibited woman who reinvigorates his spirit. Their brief conversation is warm and unguarded, and surprisingly believable in the way it establishes that these two strangers have made a connection. (The dialogue is well-written, but Damon and Blunt’s chemistry must also be credited.) It is a chance meeting; they will probably never see each other again.
But then they do! On the bus! Purely by chance again! Fate must want them to be together.
Ah, but there’s the kicker. As it happens, “fate” actually wants to keep them apart. Four men from the adjustment bureau, led by a bemused-seeming man named Richardson (John Slattery), are compelled to explain it all to David, and to us. The gist is that each person’s life has a plan laid out for it, and the adjustment bureau’s job is to keep tabs on everyone and, when necessary, manipulate events around them to facilitate course corrections. Usually these manipulations are very small, relying on the ripple effect: you can’t find your car keys, so you’re delayed 10 minutes, so you miss some minor incident at work — and it was important for your life’s plan that you miss that incident, which is why the adjustment bureau hid your keys. We think we have free will, but that’s only because the adjustment bureau works hard to keep its constant control over us invisible.
It is rare for people to have direct interaction with the adjustors, and it has only happened in David’s case because one of the adjustors — a sympathetic underling named Harry (Anthony Mackie) — made a mistake. David becomes paranoid after this, constantly fearful that he’s being watched (which he is) and that the universe wants to keep him and Elise apart (which it does). His question is why. Why is it better for his “plan” that he not be with this woman for whom he has such affection? Why can’t he make the choice for himself? And if he’s determined to go rogue, can the adjustors — who are not omnipotent, and who are bound by certain metaphysical bureaucratic restrictions — really stop him?
Destiny vs. free will, the idea of a higher power that governs us, the suggestion that we would make different choices if we could see all the outcomes — that’s heady stuff for a flick at the multiplex. The filmmakers must have been relieved when “Inception” performed so well last year, demonstrating that a movie could be intelligent and complicated without giving up on being fun. (Like “Inception,” “The Adjustment Bureau” dabbles in mind-control.) The film wisely avoids specific talk of God or religion, speaking in terms that allow viewers to apply the ideas to their own beliefs, whatever they may be.
Once the rules are laid out, we have a great time following David in his efforts to thwart them. It’s David against the universe, and we’re on David’s side. Matt Damon is, as usual, a pillar of underdog decency, playing the sort of guy you root for because you think he’d be cool to hang out with. Emily Blunt plays Elise with sexy, endearing vulnerability, a strong woman who doesn’t understand why fate has dealt with her so cruelly. And for sheer awesomeness, it’s hard to beat John Slattery’s casual, sardonic manner (perfected on “Mad Men,” where he dresses a lot like he does here) and Terence Stamp’s magnetic presence as a higher-up in the adjustment bureau.
A movie like this — all savvy and grown-up and respectable, both as art and entertainment — is a refreshing jolt every now and then, especially as we’ve just come out of the January and February doldrums. It won’t change your life or anything, but it will offer some food for thought as it spins its clever and exhilarating story.
A- (1 hr., 45 min.; )