Questions of predestination and free will are intriguingly posed and clunkily answered in “The Adjustment Bureau.” Elaborating on a Philip K. Dick yarn that posits the existence of unseen operators yanking the strings of human progress, writer-director George Nolfi’s modest mind-bender is certainly headier and more thoughtful than the mainstream dramatic norm. But its fun first hour soon gives way to a leaden, expository approach that unwisely favors emotional stakes over speculative-fiction smarts. An excellent cast led by Matt Damon could lend Universal’s diverting but dumbed-down Dick pic some niche B.O. traction before decent ancillary payoff.
With its neo-noir trappings and brain-twisting setup involving men in fedoras who orchestrate the actions of human beings as if they were lab rats, “The Adjustment Bureau” may remind some of “Dark City,” though it’s less boldly stylized than that 1998 cult fave, let alone such visually extravagant Dick adaptations as “Minority Report” and “A Scanner Darkly.” Story opens against the relatively prosaic backdrop of New York politics, centered around handsome young Senate candidate David Norris (Damon). Dubbed “the GQ Congressman” by media wags despite an edgy man-of-the-people streak, David winds up losing the race, but not before a fateful election-night encounter with a beautiful stranger, Elise (Emily Blunt), who leaves him thoroughly smitten.
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Not long after a second-chance meeting with Elise, David spies a team of men in gray suits engaged in a sinister-looking brain-scan operation. Their chief, Richardson (John Slattery), is forced to reveal the truth: They are the Adjustment Bureau, tasked with performing slight manipulations behind the scenes — a spilled cup of coffee here, an unscheduled car accident there — which can have enormous long-term ramifications for all humankind. Election loss aside, David is going places politically, making him a figure of the utmost interest to the bureau.
Richardson warns David to stay away from Elise, who is decidedly not part of “the plan.” The nature of that plan and the identity of the planner supply the philosophical conundrum at the core of the film, which becomes a tale of one man determined to master his fate, boldly question preordained outcomes and defy cosmic orders for the sake of true love.
Dick’s original tale possessed no such romantic angle, a commercial concession clearly designed to open things up emotionally. Yet the choice turns out to be all too consistent with the film’s surprisingly mushy, melodramatic sensibility, and David and Elise’s relationship is painted in such earnestly broad strokes as to beggar any serious intellectual consideration of the metaphysics; this is a movie that in order to signify a character’s romantic indecision actually shows her puzzling over a marriage license.
Pic is best enjoyed on a mechanical chase-thriller level, as David, with the help of an oddly sympathetic adjuster (Anthony Mackie), initiates a hot pursuit through the bureau’s network of interdimensional doorways. These playfully surreal setpieces, with odd visual flourishes well integrated by f/x supervisor Mark Russell, keep the viewer off balance for a spell. But in the end, Nolfi is intent on making sure everyone gets it, and after a first hour of steadily percolating intrigue, “The Adjustment Bureau” explains its ideas about chance, destiny and the existence of a higher intelligence with such crushing obviousness that it leaves you with virtually nothing to think about afterward.
Incidentally, Elise’s actions seem to carry no weight in this male-dominated universe, which is perhaps fitting for a story that at times suggests a contempo riff on Orpheus and Eurydice. That sense of helplessness only amplifies Blunt’s touching vulnerability, though elsewhere she’s a nice, tart match for Damon’s engaging protag (and she gets to show off months of physical training in a few striking if incongruous dance sequences). Sharp-tongued and smartly dressed in old-fashioned duds (by costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone), Slattery could have stepped right off the set of “Mad Men,” while Terence Stamp plays one of the bureau’s top officials with his usual scowling menace.
Nolfi, who scripted two prior Damon pictures (“The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Ocean’s Twelve”), makes a creditable helming debut on a film that bristles with undisciplined energy. Pic never settles on a consistent lensing pattern; interior shots make use of bold, angular compositions that emphasize vanishing points, while exteriors are often lensed with a hurtling handheld camera.
Kevin Thompson’s elegant production design draws on a staggering range of Gotham locations, including Rockefeller Center and the New York Public Library, emphasizing the city’s classical architecture and bearing out the slightly anachronistic feel. Early campaign-trail scenes are impressively detailed and populated, with cameos by the likes of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, James Carville, Mary Matalin and Jon Stewart.