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Movie review: 'The Adjustment Bureau'

Matt Damon and Emily Blunt star in the engaging tale (based on a Philip K. Dick story) of would-be lovers whom agents of fate are trying to keep apart.

March 04, 2011|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in "The Adjustment Bureau."
Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in "The Adjustment Bureau." (Andrew Schwartz, Universal…)

Once neglected, now lionized, the legendary science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick speaks more to our time than he ever did to his own. Starting with 1982's "Blade Runner" and including "Total Recall" and "Minority Report," close to a dozen features based on Dick's work have generated more than $1 billion in revenue. Now "The Adjustment Bureau" is poised to add to that total.

What makes Dick so appealing to our wary, distrustful state of mind is, in novelist Jonathan Lethem's words, his "remarkably personal vision of paranoia and dislocation." Never a great prose stylist, Dick had a visionary's gift for mind-bending ideas about the nature of reality, a gift "Adjustment Bureau" and its notion of unseen forces stage-managing our lives embraces.

This film, however, is Dick with a difference. Though the writer is not usually considered one of the world's great romantics, "Adjustment Bureau" writer-director George Nolfi has taken little more than the core concept from one of Dick's short stories and spun it into an "Is love stronger than fate?" plot with enough romantic interest to attract the likes of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt to the leading roles.

What results, against some odds, is an intriguing entertainment. "Adjustment Bureau's" central concept is certainly ingenious, but the details are a little wonky and don't stand up to too much scrutiny. Although the story's implausible pulp roots are never far away, its stronger aspects are so well sold by a potent cast (including Anthony Mackie and an especially forceful Terence Stamp) that, though it is a near thing, this is finally something we don't want to stop watching.

A good part of the reason for this is the undeniable attraction between stars Damon and Blunt, a charismatic duo whose palpable opposites-attract energy makes up for the speed bumps in the script by Nolfi, best known for co-writing "The Bourne Ultimatum."

Damon plays rising New York politician David Norris, once a tough kid from the Red Hook section of Brooklyn and now the buttoned-down leading contender for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Then the New York Post gets hold of some salacious photos (imagine that!), and Norris finds his whole career path in jeopardy.

It's at this low point in his life that David meets Elise Sellas (Blunt), a ballet-trained modern dancer. They meet cute in the men's room of the Waldorf Astoria, but don't get the wrong idea, she's simply on the run from hotel security for crashing a wedding. Elise's wild-child aura enchants and inspires David, but security chases her out the door and he fears he'll never see her again.

These two, you will not be shocked to learn, have not come together by accident. Their meeting has been engineered by Harry (Mackie) and Richardson (John Slattery), two guys in top coats and fedoras who look like refugees from "Mad Men." (Slattery actually is one.) With this mission accomplished, Harry and Richardson devote themselves, for reasons that are not immediately revealed, to see to it that the couple never meet again.

Who exactly are Harry and Richardson, and what are they up to? Though the film is coy about specific terminology, these gentlemen are in effect angels with a quite specific portfolio. Armed with knowledge of what's supposed to happen in the future, their task is to make adjustments around the edges that nudge people back on the life plan that's been created by the all-powerful, never seen Chairman. And for Elise and David, the plan does not include each other.

These entities may have powers humans can only dream of, they may have access to a series of doors that allow them to speed around Manhattan almost at will — nice work if you can get it — but they are not infallible. Far from it. Though Elise and David are never supposed to meet again, they do, and that's when things really get complicated.

As noted, details of what Harry and Richardson and their superior Thompson (Stamp) can and cannot do are never totally clear and don't always make sense when they are, but what is unmistakable is the strength of Elise and David's attraction. Damon, in what might be his most classically romantic role to date, and the always excellent Blunt combine to make us want them to be together as much as they want it themselves. In terms of audience involvement, that just might be enough.

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