Possessing great visual style, clever writing and the undeniable star presence of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, The Adjustment Bureau is a brisk and affecting slice of sci-fi that allows room for optimism and even God. Based on a Philip K. Dick short story but nothing slick like Minority Report or grim like Blade Runner, the movie spins off from what might be a prompt in a philosophy college class, and while it might not get much deeper than that, it's consistently entertaining and though-provoking. An attempt at a climactic third-act chase feels forced, especially in contrast to the gentle and almost hushed tone of what came before it, but the film's earnest emotions and sure sense of itself remain captivating even through the mildly out-there finale.
Before the sci-fi stuff can begin The Adjustment Bureau goes to great pains to put itself and its main character David Norris (Damon) in the real world; a Brooklyn-bred congressman running for state Senate, David gabs with Jon Stewart, gets endorsements from Michael Bloomberg and has his career dissected by James Carville, all in a dizzying montage while Damon shakes hands and flashes a grin that unnervingly reminds us of the fine line between politician and celebrity. David is a rising star, guided by his longtime friend and manager Charlie (Michael Kelly) and playing brilliantly off both his blue-collar roots and his youth-- that is, until the Post gets their hands on some incriminating college photos, and the campaign slips through his hands like sand.
As he practices his concession speech in a polished, enormous bathroom at the Waldorf-Astoria David has a romantic, intense chance encounter with Elise (Emily Blunt), inspiring him to give a career-resuscitating speech but leaving him without her phone number. When he happens to run into her on a bus the next day it seems like an extraordinary intervention of fate-- until David arrives at his office, finds everyone frozen and examined by mysterious gray-suited men, and learns that fate wants exactly the opposite.
The Adjustment Bureau, see, is the agency of fate, run by nattily dressed men in fedoras represented in this film, in order of the corporate ladder, by Anthony Mackie, John Slattery and Terrence Stamp (each looking more amazing than the next in the suits). David and Elise were only meant to meet once, and as the Bureau members begrudgingly tell David after some moments of misdirection, his continued political success hinges on them never being together. It's all written down in the plan, represented very well by squiggling lines in Moleskine notebooks that are both vague but perfectly clear. The reason they can't be together, as Slattery blithely puts it, "is above my pay grade," but David is told firmly and somewhat violently that he must set this romance aside.
But David, a working class boy taught to follow his heart, fights for her instead. The most remarkable thing that Blunt and Damon pull off is allowing us to believe in this romance from the start, so that all the crazy things David endures to fight the Bureau somehow seem worth it. For various reasons both David and Elise spend much of the film racing across the city, past carefully chosen landmarks both major and minor that evoke New York as an architectural marvel, full of grand hallways and marble floors and sharp angles that stab right through you. The halls of the Adjustment Bureau are represented by the New York Public Library, while a climactic scene begins at the grand courthouse on Centre Street; director George Nolfi shoots New York City better than any film I've seen recently, orchestrating a place that's both real and miraculous, and somewhere a fleet of all-knowing men in suits and fedoras wouldn't be out of place at all.
It's possible that The Adjustment Bureau is flashier than it is meaningful, and certainly the busy third act belies some of the confident promise of the film's earlier parts. But the movie does not look or feel like anything else, something that cannot be taken for granted in a time when even original sci-fi ideas feel wrung out and hollow. It's sci-fi for romantics and believers, something Dick might have scoffed at but more than welcome before the next dystopian apocalypse film comes along.