As the screenwriter on intrigue-action movies The Bourne Ultimatum and The Sentinel, George Nolfi knows a thing or two about creating suspense. And with his feature film debut, The Adjustment Bureau, he makes a beautifully smooth transition from screenwriter to filmmaker.
Loosely based on a 1954 short story by Philip K. Dick, the plot follows politician David Norris (Matt Damon). He’s a blue-collar hot shot who gets robbed of a U.S. Senate seat after a tabloid revelation about a display of temper back in his college days. The sting of defeat is lessened when the young all-American everyman meets a beautiful dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt) in the men’s room of the hotel. Elise’s story about hiding from hotel security in a toilet stall after being caught crashing a wedding seems unlikely. Nonetheless, the forced plot point allows romantic sparks to fly between Damon and Blunt. The actors’ convincing onscreen chemistry puts a simmer under the artificial sci-fi storyline that hovers above.
There’s a clear comparison between The Adjustment Bureau and Inception. Both films surprise the viewer with juxtaposed environments that compress space and time. Here, a midtown Manhattan office building door might lead onto the field at Yankee Stadium or let out on a cobblestone SoHo backstreet.
Such metaphysical manipulation is the narrative backdrop for an old-fashioned idea about a small group of bureaucrats controlling all human interaction. They are “adjusters” who monitor anomalies, such as the unplanned meeting of Elise and David. Their job is to make corrections for such irregularities so that all goes according to “their” predetermined plan. They carry around special map books that show coded patterns of all human movement. It seems that David has a promising political future if only he stays away from Elise. She too has a bright future, as a modern dancer and choreographer, if she doesn’t fall into a long-term relationship with David.
Coincidence incites David to run into Elise after the men-in-hats discover the couple’s initial meeting. Our not-so-cloaked guardians of freewill give David the once-over-twice. They warn him to stay away from the girl, ostensibly under pain of death. But the warning isn’t enough to prevent fate from intervening when David runs into Elise on a public bus. Adjuster Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) is instructed to prevent the incident from occurring. But Harry is worn out from the daily grind of his demanding job. Harry also harbors an inexplicable soft spot for Elise’s and David’s bond. He’s not entirely “adjuster” material. When his bosses call in their heavyweight closer, Thompson (Terrance Stamp), to put a lid on the long-budding relationship, the pace quickens into an unconventional chase story.
The Adjustment Bureau has a less threatening appeal than Inception. Its clearly stated romantic connection is the heart of the puzzle. Eschewing the woof and boom of narrative false-bottoms, and faceless men firing blank rounds of ammunition, proves effective in putting across a simple story about two people who desperately want to be together. The simplicity works.
The Adjustment Bureau (PG-13) ★★★☆☆