George Nolfi is nothing if not ambitious. In The Adjustment Bureau, his feature debut as a helmer, the writer-director attempts nothing less than to have an honest and unironic conversation about the role of fate versus free will in our lives, specifically within the context of a world governed by a higher power. He also wants to make a psychological thriller, and a romance, and a soft sci-fi adventure piece. On one level, you have to applaud the scale he wants to work on; only a first-time director would be audacious enough to want to mix seven types of entertainment and make a metaphysical comment on existence in just under 100 minutes. Seriously, Nolfi gets an A for effort. The execution, though, is somewhat less convincing. His screenplay is plagued with exposition dumps that make for real groaners, but what really undoes the whole thing is the way the stakes feel so low. For a movie that wants to be about the battle between fate and free will witnessed through the lens of one man’s life, it feels awfully low-key and safe. At key moments, Nolfi jumps forward in time or simply ends a subplot, and it feels like he’s letting the air out of the tires just as the car was starting to get up to speed. The film is at its best when Nolfi loosens his grip and lets the characters power the story instead of amping up the expository conversations and deflating twists that sap the energy he’s built up. He ultimately takes us behind the curtain too much, or at least lets us see the fringe. It’s ironic that a film that argues for the existence of a higher power would be undone by an overbearing hand that forces upon the story a fate that never seems to track with its own desires.
The driving force of the film is the relationship between David Norris (Matt Damon), a politician with eyes on the Senate and beyond, and Elise (Emily Blunt), a dancer and free spirit filled to the brim with blinding levels of Manic Pixie Dream Girlishness. They meet on the night David loses his race for Senate, in the hotel bathroom where he’s practicing his speech. She’s hiding from security after crashing a wedding on her own dare, and her combination of snappy comebacks and cooler-than-thou attitude almost derail the entire relationship for viewers right there. But Blunt is a woman of staggering charm, and Damon’s got an equally imposing sense of humor and self-awareness, and their lengthy chat becomes warm and easygoing instead of feeling (too much) like banter. She scampers out of his life, leaving him to make his concession speech and move on.
In the background of all this is a group of men in trench coats and fedoras that are howlingly conspicuous in the 21st century but whose appearance still goes unnoticed by most people. To greatly condense things, these men are members of the Adjustment Bureau: supernatural operatives working on behalf of an unnamed Chairman who watch over people and who occasionally intervene in their lives to get them back on track. Human existence is a mix of fate and free will: individual choice governs things like meal times and daily habits, but a master plan is in place that determines you’ll ultimately do and see and become. One of these operatives, Harry (Anthony Mackie), misses an appointment to delay David from getting to work at the venture capital firm that’s hired him after his Senate loss, and as a result, David winds up next to Elise on the bus (which was never supposed to happen) and strolls into work to find that Bureau men have frozen his entire office in order to adjust their neural pathways and decision-making processes (a sight he was never supposed to see). The Bureau men cop to their practice and tell David that they’re trying to keep things going smoothly and that his destiny doesn’t lie with Elise, threatening him with total mental erasure if he tells anyone about the Bureau or their works. This seems like a slightly harsh threat from a mystical being working on behalf of the Almighty, but such is life in the big leagues.
Yet here’s where Nolfi’s script (inspired by a Philip K. Dick story) starts to lose energy: David agrees, and three years pass. Like that, the tension and suspense are gone. Major shifts forward in time in a film almost always sever the narrative thread, and this cut is no different. What’s especially irksome is how David jumps back into the Senate race and runs into Elise again, prompting another visit from the Bureau that spurs him to buck their orders and try to be with her. Nolfi could have gotten the same plot out of a story that had David and Elise meet in his initial senatorial campaign, and as a bonus, he would have had the looming election as a deadline. The shortened timeline and looming moment of decision would have provided the necessary energy to the screenplay that’s sorely lacking from the final version. It isn’t spoiling anything to say that after all David and Elise go through this second time, there’s another break, this one of 11 months, before the story finally picks up again and finishes. It’s a choppy, ungainly story that almost goes out of its way to distract viewers from the fact that this battle between David, who refuses to accept what he’s told is his fate, and the Bureau, who are out to enforce that fate, is supposed to be exciting and tense. Instead, the film just ambles along.
As it does, there are various moments that work: David and Elise are likable people, and Damon brings a convincing energy to scenes in which he often has to choose between the girl and the plan that’s presented to him. Yet Nolfi forgets that viewers are coming to this material fresh, without the benefit of knowing its twists and turns. A good example of this is the way he can’t quite decide how he wants to play the presence of the Bureau early on. Whatever their motivation, it’s a creepy idea that men in old hats can freeze time and mess with people’s brains, but Nolfi winds up playing most of their appearances and interactions for easy laughs. When Harry misses David at one point and is forced to chase after him, what’s probably intended to be a tense scene (or at least one that juxtaposes David’s innocence and comfort with the proximity of his pursuers) is neutered by the generic, plinky score from Thomas Newman. The director’s basically telegraphing his punches, making the chase scenes no more dramatic or engaging than the walk-and-talks. Nolfi’s so familiar with the story that he forgets he has to tell it.
The only moments that work in the film are those when Damon and Blunt share the screen. They’re perfectly cast, and they work together with such ease that they elevate the quality of their scenes. Their body language is wonderful, and they go a long way toward selling the possibility of their romance as real. It’s unfortunate that they get drowned out by the rest of the film, though. By the end, Nolfi has turned David’s quest from an existential battle into a chase film fueled by amorphous monotheism and magical hats. (Not kidding.) What starts with such promise ends with surprising ease. We’re meant to root for David to chart his own path, but Nolfi winds up carving an easy one for him. That’s the whole problem here: fate is supposed to be the enemy, but the ending is never in doubt.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.