Silver Screen: The Adjustment Bureau *1/2
Matt Damon probably has the best batting average in Hollywood. Since his mainstream breakout in the late 1990s with the one-two punch of Goodwill Hunting and Saving Private Ryan, he's been prominently featured in a string of Oscar favorites (The Talented Mister Ripley, Syriana, The Departed, True Grit), headlined one of the preeminent action franchises of the decade (the Bourne series), and even did some top-notch goofing around (with appearances on Thirty Rock, hamming it up with the Farrelly brothers in Stuck on You, and delivering more subtle comedy in The Informant and the breezy Ocean's Eleven series). Even his rare misses barely register as failures, like the studio-tinkered potential glory of Billy Bob Thornton's All the Pretty Horses and Terry Gilliam's Brothers Grimm.
So you can't be too hard on the guy for The Adjustment Bureau, certainly one of his worst outings, but still a kind of intriguing disaster.
The premise comes from a short story by sci-fi's mad king Philip K. Dick, whose paranoid dystopian fantasies hinge on wild concepts that tend to render film translations either exceptional (Blade Runner, Minority Report... and, yes, Total Recall, kind of) or painful to sit through, from the twitchy and nonsensical Next to the meandering mush of A Scanner Darkly. With The Adjustment Bureau, screenwriter George Nolfi, making his directorial debut, isn't able to create the expansive, fully realized settings of the better Dick films, nor is he able to organize the scattered logic of the author's fever dreams.
Damon stars as David Noris, a young congressman about to transcend his tragic past and become a U.S. Senator representing New York. What seems to be a fluke of circumstance-- in the form of the ill-timed surfacing of a photo of David participating in a fraternity prank-- causes a reversal of fortune. But during the night of his loss he meets an alluring ballerina while rehearsing his concession speech, an encounter that lingers in his mind long after it inspires him to give a career-redeeming speech.
David attempts to reconnect with the ballerina, but random chance seems fixed against it-- which he learns is no accident. Due to a glitch in their elaborate but never well-conceived or convincingly explained system, David catches a group of metaphysical bureaucrats calling themselves the Adjustment Bureau in the act of manipulating the flow of events and altering people's individual wills to fit a certain agenda. That agenda is part of a kind of much alluded-to master plan, created by a faceless godlike figure, of which the drones in the Adjustment Bureau see only fragments.
How do these magical middle-managers achieve their minor modifications to the course of events? Sometimes with a simple flick of a wrist that magically stops a subject from catching a fateful bus or train, but sometimes by freezing everyone in time and sending in goon squads with sci-fi tech to alter the brain patterns of troublesome players in the choreographed scenario. The members of the Adjustment Bureau enjoy a fairly broad set of powers, the specifics of which the characters in the film spend a lot of time extemporizing about without ever nailing down.
It's problematic that the longer the film goes on, the further the characters seem from the central drama. Damon's idealistic congressman (a little implausibly clean-cut) and Emily Blunt's plucky dancer have a nice chemistry, but once Damon stumbles onto the conspiracy, that relationship is just a cog in the wheel of a creaky story that's coming apart exactly when it should be coming together. Everyone keeps a straight face even as they're forced to deliver and react to revelations that the sometimes-but-not-always-omnipotent Adjustment Bureau thugs can't track someone in the rain, and they can only zigzag through their magical doors that lead to anywhere they want when they are wearing their hats.
The movie nominally addresses but mostly just circles around the concept of free will, leaving stately actors John Slattery and Terence Stamp to sharply deliver some rambling soliloquies in between coming up with excuses for why they can or cannot read minds in any particular situation. It's Dark City by way of Office Space, which is every bit as awkward as it sounds.
Damon and the rest of the cast fully commit to the zany premise, which is kind of noble, and for brief stretches our hero's bizarre plight is moderately compelling-- that is, until it lapses into another discussion of the ridiculous rules or someone is reminded not to forget their hat lest they want to bend the space-time continuum. It's hard to imagine any of this seemed like a good idea at the time, but kudos to Damon for never flinching, even in the face of total absurdity.