At 7:05 a.m. one New York workday, former senator hopeful David Norris was supposed to spill coffee on himself on his way to his desk job. That meant he’d run back home to change clothes. That meant he’d miss his bus. And that meant he wouldn’t run into Elise, a dancer he improbably met in a hotel bathroom while he thought he was alone, working on his concession speech the night he lost the election. They’d each go their separate ways, never meeting again, and all would be right with the world.
At least that’s how things are run in The Adjustment Bureau, writer-director George Nolfi’s adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story. Nolfi’s directorial debut is like Sliding Doors crossed with The Matrix, an entertaining sci-fi love story that’s exciting in more than the usual will-they-or-won’t-they ways. Because the forces that keep our central couple apart aren’t wacky friends or crazy exes or ridiculous self-doubt. It’s men in hats.
Yes, that sounds stupid, but trust me. The story is told from the perspective of David (Matt Damon, as always a low-key charmer), a political wunderkind who sabotages a shoo-in Senatorial win whose former frat-boy impulses are exposed at exactly the wrong time. When he runs into Elise (Emily Blunt), they have a nice conversation but never exchange information because she’s kinda on the run, having crashed a wedding at the hotel. So David is thrilled when he sees her on a bus shortly afterward — he never did spill coffee on himself, because one of the men who help pull the strings, Harry (Anthony Mackie), was dozing. Whoops.
But David + Elise is not part of The Plan, so the men in hats (led by John Slattery) have to make extra efforts to keep these two apart. And because David ended up ahead of his intended time line, he catches a glimpse of the Adjustment Bureau at work: When he walks into his office, high from running into Elise, he barely notices that secretaries and other co-workers are frozen as he runs to tell his campaign manager/close friend Charlie (Michael Kelly) the news. But Charlie is also frozen and getting his brain recalibrated by the bureau, a group whose work one normally never sees.
So David gets a stern talking-to and the promise that should he ever reveal what he’s seen, his memory and life will be wiped. He’s told that he and Elise are to be kept apart but no reason is given, at least not until he keeps fighting so hard that Harry starts to take pity on him and clues him into the intricacies of The Plan and how he might get around it.
What makes The Adjustment Bureau so intriguing is its butterfly-effect premise, the application of which is focused on potential lovers who seem so natural together. Nolfi, who penned The Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean’s Twelve, may have David and Elise meet-cute, but once they do their conversations are easy and realistic, not the too-clever (or, worse, thinks-it’s-clever) crap you find in most romances. Damon and Blunt are likable and decently rounded, both with ambitions beyond getting laid. (She’s a successful modern dancer on the brink of stardom; he’s working his way toward another Senate bid.) You root for these kids and get as frustrated as they do at the men who are trying so hard to keep them apart.
Until, that is, you find out — as David does — the reason why. Even before that, though, the ideas of fate and free will keep The Adjustment Bureau compelling. (One of the senior adjusters, played by Terence Stamp, explains that humans only have the appearance of free will, because during one of the periods when humans were actually granted it, “we had the Dark Ages for five centuries.”)
The film is a curious little hybrid of actioner and love story, with a sense of danger that keeps things moving at a quick clip. There are even some cool effects: Those hats allow the adjusters to use doors as portals, which means the characters can jump from, say, a courthouse to Yankee Stadium to Ellis Island. At its heart, the film is a sweet romance, but with its heady ideas and exciting action, there’s no room for treacle.