Hollywood has not had much success adapting the work of sci-fi author Philip K. Dick. For every Blade Runner, you get a Paycheck, a Next, and the last twenty minutes of Minority Report. The latest Philip K. Dick story to get the feature film treatment is The Adjustment Bureau, based off Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team”. While most Dick adaptations wink at the cleverness of their source material before ignoring it in favor of massive set pieces, writer-director George Nolfi imbues The Adjustment Bureau with a cool confidence, and with the help of his charming lead actors, he carries the film through its sillier moments and unambiguous ending.
Politician David Norris (Matt Damon) is poised for greatness. He’s young, charming, and has the looks of Matt Damon. However, his election to the U.S. Congress is blind-sided by a damning newspaper headline highlighting his physically aggressive past and he gets destroyed in the polls. But on election night, as he prepares his concession speech, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt) in the men’s bathroom as she’s hiding out from a wedding she crashed. Sparks begin to fly between the two and in their brief moment together, she inadvertently inspires him to throw his prepared marks to the wind and pull the curtain back on the borderline-psychotic precision to which political candidates are tailored for public consumption. His honesty puts him back in the hearts of New York voters and primes him for a future run at Congress. Several months later, David meets Elise on a bus and it’s clear that there’s potential for a serious future between the two.
It’s the beginning of a grand love story—and it’s not supposed to happen. David’s second meeting with Elise was in violation of a larger design and a shadowy group of individuals known as “The Adjustment Bureau” are supposed to make sure that design is always carried out. They have cool little diaries that track the decisions of individuals and seek to guide an individual’s fate so that it doesn’t deviate from “the plan” of “the chairman”. David accidentally learns about the bureau and they give him two simple instructions: never tell anyone about their existence and never try to be with Elise. If he violates either rule, they’ll “reset” him and destroy his personality.
Nolfi spends a great deal of time and effort outlining the abilities, limitations, and inner-workings of the Adjustment Bureau. Unfortunately, he lacks the creative spark to really run with their bizarre world. There’s a lot of style to the bureaucrats and their HQ is gorgeous, but Nolfi never attempts to play with the fate-altering mechanics such an inspired premise creates. The plus side of this rigid adherence to the laws of the “bureau” is that he never questions them and because he believes wholeheartedly in this group, he makes them feel real. This conviction is crucial when the film reaches the third act and has to throw in magic hats and proper doorknob usage in order to have a thrilling chase sequence that goes on a little too long.
But more than Nolfi’s dogmatic adherence to a particular style and structured exposition, the film is truly saved by the chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. The two actors don’t have many scenes together (the movie is largely from David’s point of view with breaks to show us life inside the bureau), but whenever they share the screen, they’re electric. “Chemistry” is such a crucial X-factor to relationship stories and too often we see Popular Actor paired with Popular Actress and hope for the best. Blunt and Damon are so good together that when their characters flirt and banter, you can only conclude that they’re meant to be together; special notebooks and fate of the universe be damned.
There are so many points where Adjustment Bureau could fall apart and as it wears on, the cracks begin to show. But the whole endeavor manages to hold together because Nolfi, while not blisteringly imaginative, understands that this is a love story with supernatural underpinnings. There are times when he gets a little too distracted with explaining the “how” of the bureau rather than engaging in the philosophical questions they raise, but by being first and foremost a charming romance, The Adjustment Bureau works wonders.