Starting dully and ending ludicrously, The Adjustment Bureau is an odd duck of a would-be-lightweight fantasy. It presents a slickly mounted mishmash of pulp determinism (very freely adapted from a Phillip K. Dick short story) and a relentlessly formulaic romanticism—the problems of this crazy world don’t amount to a hill of beans compared to true love—that is now consuming even Matt Damon lone-hero vehicles, albeit somewhat less grimly than DiCaprio-mourns-his-late-wife thrillers. Damon is an idealistic but reckless Brooklyn congressman whose career, and failed senatorial campaign, are regularly self-sabotaged by bar fights and mooning episodes captured in tabloid photos. (Whether a full-page shot of Damon’s ass would actually dent his electability is one of many questions George Nolfi, an Ocean’s/Bourne writer directing for the first time, hasn’t fully thought out.) After annoyingly lacing the politico’s stump scenes with cameos by Jon Stewart, Mayor Bloomberg, and Jesse Jackson, which only make Damon look like a movie star, and giving him a meet-cute in the men’s room with the mystery girl of his dreams (Emily Blunt), the film finally leaps into supernatural gear when the pol-turned-consultant stumbles onto a mysterious cabal of fedora-clad men (bemused squad leader John Slattery and simmeringly sensitive Anthony Mackie) who “adjust” human life to fit a preordained blueprint by traveling through shortcuts in the space-time continuum and changing individuals’ decision patterns with what looks like a vacuum hose.
Hats in place (which enable them to open the enchanted doors and whatnot) and mouthing pronouncements like “You deviated from The Plan,” The Adjustment Bureau‘s caretaker-guardians remain coyly undefined, but the dialogue allows that they might be angels rather than the scarily efficient autocrats of the Dick story, even before the pitifully stranded Mackie turns savior in the third act. It turns out that The Plan (overseen by an off-screen “Chairman”) requires Damon and Blunt, whose chipper B-grade banter clearly screams “soul mates” in this context, must be kept apart lest passion distract them from their crucial destinies of Oval Office occupant and, um, great modern dancer. There’s a germ of a challenging idea here (that mating saps the urge for artistry or social service), but Nolfi’s dopey scenario fails to exploit it.
Similarly, when Damon’s flouting of the Way Things Must Be isn’t discouraged by Slattery’s threat of a mental erasure, or “reset,” Terence Stamp shows up as a senior enforcer fearfully dubbed “The Hammer” (an inappropriately ESPNish moniker for Billy Budd or General Zod), but despite the actor’s gravitas, he forgoes omnipotent ass-kicking in favor of a sub-Rod Serling lecture on the dangers of unsupervised humanity. (His revelation that the Adjusters withdrew for a few decades here and there, encouraged by the Renaissance and industrialization, shows a poor grasp of mortals’ fairly constant savagery.) Stamp seems merely a slightly more malevolent celestial messenger than the avuncular Claude Rains-James Mason model, and the Adjustment Bureau members’ physical and telepathic limits remain murky, as does the question of whether they use the main reading room of the 42nd Street library as a base only during overnight hours.
It’s hard to fault Damon, back to the high-concept treadmill after his appealingly quirky turn in True Grit, or the amiable Blunt for failing to salvage much out of the all-bells-and-whistles environment. The great cinematographer John Toll supplies a glistening digital sheen to the man-vs.-superman New York hijinks, but to what end? Lacking the good sense to make a politician’s fight with the Fates for his exercise of free will a comedy, Nolfi makes his climax out of a magic-door chase from Yankee Stadium to the Statue of Liberty, and lands with a thud on the saccharine resolution that’s inevitable from the moment Mackie starts spilling his seraphic guts to Damon. Nothing distinguishes The Adjustment Bureau‘s adolescent contrivance except for its risible cry of warning: “He’s got a hat!”