There’s a startling moment 10 or 15 minutes into The Adjustment Bureau — the only time, really, when the film achieves any level of surprise. The dispiriting dullness of this dreary misfire hasn’t had time to settle in and thicken: The movie hasn’t yet revealed its utter and thorough ineptitude.
The latest — and arguably loosest — in a long string of big-budget Hollywood appropriations of a Philip K. Dick short story (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Next), The Adjustment Bureau marks the directorial debut of screenwriter George Nolfi, who wrote Ocean’s Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum (thus explaining Matt Damon’s trusting presence here). But Nolfi also wrote the generic Michael Douglas vehicle The Sentinel and co-wrote the film adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel Timeline, which turned out to be one of the worst science-fiction adventures released by a major motion picture studio in the last 20 years.
The Adjustment Bureau isn’t quite in that league, but I can’t imagine anyone’s ever speaking about this movie with fondness other than the people who made it, and maybe their close relatives. Things start out promisingly, as we watch the career of New York Senate hopeful David Morris (Damon) implode after the press uncovers a youthful but saucy indiscretion.
At around the same time he’s bidding his political life goodbye, David encounters a likably brash young woman, Elise (Emily Blunt), who lives up to the promise of their meet-cute encounter: She’s wild! She’s unpredictable! She’s a dancer! Just as I started wondering if George Nolfi were a clever pseudonym for that sneaky Nora Ephron, the movie dropped the genre bomb: A squad of vaguely sinister men in gray suits and hats led by Mad Men’s John Slattery is tailing David for unknown reasons. The men also carry around magical black notebooks filled with mysterious patterns and shifting mazes which they constantly consult and then stare gravely at each other.
The Adjustment Bureau posits that human free will is an illusion, that our fates already have been determined by greater powers and that any attempt to veer away from our pre-ordained destinies is futile, because there is a team of “adjusters” ready to pounce at the first sign of disobedience and correct our behavior without our knowledge. Although the adjusters often refer to their boss as “the guy upstairs” or some variation thereof, those references are the closest the film comes to invoking any religious or spiritual explanation for the proceedings. Nor does it spend much time exploring the metaphysical or philosophical implications of its central conceit (imagine, what, say, Brazil-era Terry Gilliam might have done with this material).
No, The Adjustment Bureau uses its “Say what?” premise to redefine the meaning of true love — to suggest that, when you meet a total stranger and feel as if you had met him or her before, you probably did just that, but the adjusters made you forget about the incident because you weren’t supposed to have fallen for each other. Nora Ephron may never get around to making an action romance set in Manhattan with quasi-religious, sci-fi underpinnings, but if she did, I doubt it would be as shaggy and silly as this one
The plot of The Adjustment Bureau unfolds without rhyme or reason, with characters who behave in inexplicable ways just because. (Why, exactly, does one of the adjusters, played by Anthony Mackie, suddenly take a sympathetic interest in David’s plight?) Damon and Blunt lack the on-screen chemistry to make you care much about their fate. Damon only seems plugged into the movie when he’s running around and making like Jason Bourne, while Blunt does too good a job of portraying her character’s strong, confident personality in her early scenes, only to retreat into wilting-violet mode in the movie’s second half, as the script requires
Even the presence of an über-adjuster scarily named “The Hammer” and played by the great Terence Stamp disappoints: The character proves completely ineffectual, and the only thing he manages to achieve is to get punched in the face, hard. General Zod would have never put up with this, and neither should you.
Cast: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Terence Stamp, Michael Kelly.
Writer-director: George Nolfi. Based on the short story by Philip K. Dick.
Producers: Bill Carraro, George Nolfi, Michael Hackett.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 105 minutes. Brief vulgar language, brief violence, adult themes. Opens Friday March 4 at area theaters.