Politician David Norris (Matt Damon) meets dancer Elise (Emily Blunt) on election night, forming an instant bond that inspires him to make the speech of his life. Months later, he encounters her again, but mysterious men in hats seem determined to keep them apart.
Once again, a film based on a Philip K. Dick idea bears at most a passing resemblance to its inspiration — but this time it’s because, instead of piling illogic on high concept, Hollywood has transformed his short story into a swoonsome romance. Strangely, that seems to be a better fit. Maybe Dick had a softer centre than we ever knew.
The themes of screenwriter George Nolfi’s first feature film as director will delight philosophers. Does free will exist, or are we travelling along pre-determined paths — and if so, who determines them, and to what extent? Where does chance end and design begin? Can we fight Fate? Luckily for us, Nolfi’s execution will excite everyone else, for this metaphysical love story/thriller manages the very difficult trick of remaining intriguingly intelligent while unfailingly placing entertainment well ahead of explanation.
In other words, the script merrily skips any laboured exposition on exactly who — or what — the ubiquitous shady men in the sharp suits and anachronistic hats are. It positively sprints past any lengthy monologues establishing why they do what they do — and, for that matter, barely lingers on the “what” they’re doing. There’s a suggestion that the Adjusters may be angels, which would certainly explain their Wings Of Desire-esque propensity for standing on rooftops wearing overcoats, and there’s mention of a Chairman with a Plan, but it’s never particularly dissected. All the better, since it’s in establishing the detail that brain-bending thrillers like this tend to fall apart.
Instead, we experience The Adjustment Bureau as does the film’s protagonist David Norris (Matt Damon): as a strange and all-powerful force twisting events to its own ends. That’s not to say that the members of the Bureau are devoid of personality: John Slattery’s Richardson is sardonic and, on some level, grudgingly respectful of Norris; Anthony Mackie’s Harry is openly compassionate; Terence Stamp’s Thompson all business.
This cabal of millinery enthusiasts first attempts to manipulate Norris, and then downright orders him to break off contact with dancer Elise (Emily Blunt). But when pure chance gives him another shot, he very sensibly refuses to give her up. Watching the sparks fly between the charismatic pair, you can hardly blame him; this is one of those pairings where the oft-mentioned but seldom earned Tracy and Hepburn comparisons are merited. Damon plays smart, ambitious, but a little feckless; Blunt is amused, independent and more driven than the usual manic pixie dream girl stereotype that Elise might have become in lesser hands. The dialogue between them fairly crackles, allowing us to overlook the only-in-Hollywood serendipity of their meetings and instant connection.
It’s their intense link that keeps the pace fast and frantic as the difficulties pile on, the film gradually accelerating into a mad dash for the finish line that uses a few simple but remarkably effective special effects to keep you whizzing along with it. Nolfi saves his budget for where it matters; perhaps learning from his writing work on Bourne that knowing where to cut can be just as effective as blowing everything in sight sky-high. Even more miraculously, despite the fact that that’s Matt Damon powering down the street, this never feels like a Bourne wannabe in its action scenes. It’s a testament to how expertly the film builds to its conclusion that only days later do you realise this finale is basically that hoariest of rom-com clichés, the run for love. Maybe that’s because, with all the forces of the universe arrayed against them, you feel that these two actually deserve to make it.
It’s Inception for romantics, a love story told through the medium of science-fiction — or maybe not; it’s hard to peg this by genre. By keeping the pace quick, the explanation light and the characters strong, Nolfi achieves the near-impossible: a film puzzle you won’t mind leaving unexplained.