By Caryn James | James on Screens March 1, 2011 at 6:37AM
Love can save your life; that’s the message of The Adjustment Bureau. But it’s Matt Damon and Emily Blunt who save the film, turning it from the overloaded political sci-fi romantic thriller it might have been into a breezy, charming love story. In the old Hollywood days, what the actors have together would have been called chemistry; they have the irresistible ease and appeal of classic movie couples.
At first you have no clue where writer/director George Nolfi is going, though. Damon plays a New York Congressman running for Senate, David, plagued by some bad-boy headlines from his past, and the film trots out real-life politicians and news people, including Michael Bloomberg, Jon Stewart and Wolf Blitzer. (There’s plot # 1.)
On his way to give his concession speech, David meets Elise (Blunt), a dancer hiding out from hotel security in the men’s room because she has crashed a wedding. (Plot # 2). And after he accidentally runs into her again it turns out he is trailed by agents from some higher power, men in fedoras who control his fate and need to keep the couple apart. (That’s # 3, a plot too far.)
John Slattery and Anthony Mackie are the fedora-wearing agents, who can stop time for David and drag him into an empty warehouse that suddenly appears where an office should be. The agents are not guardian angels; they’re noodges, giving people an elbow here, a shove there to keep them on their fated paths.
At this point The Adjustment Bureau reminded me of a famous Ethan Coen remark about Miller’s Crossing, that it should be “a handsome movie about men in hats.” In the much less handsome Adjustment Bureau the hats are like magic wands, literally opening doors. The movie was pricey to make (reportedly more than $60 million) but at times looks like cheaper version of Inception.
As David defies fate and pursues Elise, though, the romance overtakes the leaden supernatural plot and the two actors carry us away. They flirt and dance through the streets of New York, as if the movie they are in made sense. Should he leave her because the bureau says he’ll ruin her life? Should she return to her old boyfriend?
Damon has been wonderful in lone-wolf roles like the Bourne movies and The Good Shepherd, but here he shows his romantic-lead appeal. Blunt has been in a stream of films, like this one, not as good as she is. It’s lucky their bright spark makes this film work, because you have to overlook some clunky philosophizing, with lines like, “Free will is a gift you’ll never learn to use until you fight for it.” If ever a line should have been cut . . ..
This is Nolfi’s first film as director; he was a co-writer of The Bourne Ultimatum and wrote Oceans 12 (unfortunately, that’s the bad middle one). He has made some smart moves in updating Philip K. Dick’s story, changing David from an insurance man to a politician. There are some great political scenes in which David talks about consultants, although a Senate candidate taking a bus to his official announcement is as implausible as magic fedoras.
Nolfi’s writing and direction may have problems, but his casting feels like fate. Take a look.