Adjustment Bureau ✮✮1/2
by Glenn Lovell
Why do we do the things we do? Are we prompted by angels or aliens? Or, as Charlie Kaufman speculates, does what we call Fate come down to a rift in the space-time continuum?
Director George Nolfi, channeling Philip K. Dick, posits a fourth possibility in “The Adjustment Bureau”: Men in black fedoras whose preferred mode of transit is the back door, provided ‒ it gets tricky here ‒ you always turn the doorknob clockwise.
Obviously these guys are not rocket scientists or, for that matter, graduates of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
The Fate Police, as we’ll call them, stage a chance meeting between stalled New York politician David Norris (Matt Damon) and a dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt). Elise is suppose to inspire David to deliver a concession speech that will re-ignite his campaign and eventually lead to the White House. And then she’s supposed to scram, as in return to her designated path through life.
Since the Fate Police are as bumbling as they are humorless, nothing goes as planned, and David and Elise meet again on a bus. Complicating matters, David catches these guys in the act of “recalibrating” his campaign manager. This is like peeking behind the Wizard’s curtain. It carries consequences.
“We’re the people who make things happen according to plan,” David’s told.
If he ever talks about what he’s seen, he’ll be permanently “reset,” his memory wiped clean.
Since this is more hearts-aflutter romance than nuts-and-bolts sci-fi, David ignores the warning and searches for the love of his life, whom, yes, he happens upon three years later.
If this sounds terribly retro, like “Men in Black” meets “Alice in Wonderland,” that’s how it plays. The Bureau’s all-business higher-ups ‒ Richardson (“Mad Men’s” John Slattery) and Thompson (Terence Stamp) ‒ might have stepped from a J. Edgar Hoover timewarp. They’re glum and frantic, especially when things go wrong. Which is often thanks to a sleep-deprived turncoat (Anthony Mackie of “The Hurt Locker”) who feels the Bureau owes David big time.
This sentimental agent pops up frequently and coordinates David’s climactic run through doors that connect Yankee Stadium to Liberty Island. Mandatory travel attire: dopey-looking fedora, of course.
This part is silly but mildly suspenseful, mostly because Damon is such a likable guy and we’re cheering for him even when his character seems a pale sub for Jason Bourne. Damon is especially good on the stump; he has the easygoing manner of a Kennedy. I’d certainly vote for the guy.
Where Nolfi and company stumble badly is in melding suspense and humor. One moment we’re embroiled in a mind control nightmare, the next Damon is sliding foolishly across the floor. The model for this kind of venture is Kaufman’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or, better yet, Warren Beatty’s charming, bittersweet “Heaven Can Wait.”
Still, we can’t be too concerned. Thanks to Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll (“The Thin Red Line”), this is the prettiest tour of Manhattan since “Manhattan.” Also, half the city’s politicians and pundits make hey-that’s-what’s-his-name cameos. So don’t be surprised if this sci-fi heart-tugger receives an enthusiastic thumbs up from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Jesse Jackson, Jon Stewart and the gang at CNN.
THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU. ✮✮1/2 With Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Terence Stamp. Directed, scripted by George Nolfi (from a Philip K. Dick story). 99 mins. PG-13 (for slight profanity, tame lovemaking, a couple of car crashes).