Destined for Lameness

'The Adjustment Bureau' mixes no-chemistry romance with dull science fiction

The Adjustment Bureau has an interesting idea at its core. It's loosely based on a Philip K. Dick short story ("Adjustment Team"), and he's the genius responsible for mind-bending tales that led to great films like Total Recall, Blade Runner, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly.

Writer-director George Nolfi has adapted Dick's story to the screen for his directorial debut. While it's certainly an ambitious undertaking, the resultant movie is a mess suffering from an identity crisis, with performers seemingly uncertain about what kind of movie they are laboring in.

Matt Damon stars as David Norris, a rough-edged politician running for a U.S. Senate seat despite a checkered past. He has a big lead going into the final lap, but the New York Post finds and runs a picture of Norris mooning a camera from his frat days, and this does not bode well for his political aspirations. Damn that pesky New York Post!

Before giving his concession speech, Norris meets sexy dancer Elise (Emily Blunt) in a men's bathroom. (She's hiding in a stall while he's rehearsing his speech aloud.) They start chatting, commence making out, and then split up for what should be forever, because it is Manhattan, and they didn't exchange phone numbers. Inspired by Elise's hotness, David delivers a brutally honest and unrehearsed concession speech and positions himself as a rebel and potential political superstar.

Even though the odds are against them, the two meet up again on a bus, and this time, David gets her phone number.

But hold on! Some mysterious dapper guys in hats were supposed to prevent their meeting from happening. It turns out there is a secret society of magical mystery dudes who conspire to keep people on their predestined paths. Every individual's life has been mapped out, and somebody named "The Chairman" is tasked with keeping everybody moving forward on their particular paths.

The dudes in the hats don't think David and Elise are supposed to be together, and they are getting fed up with David's persistence regarding his love life. He is eventually supposed to become the president, but if he goes off with Elise, both his political destiny and her future as a world-renowned dancer are in peril. They take Norris behind the scenes, reveal this major mystery of the universe to him, and threaten to lobotomize him if he ever mentions a word to anybody.

At first, the concept is intriguing—but as the film moves on, it all becomes a bunch of hooey.

In one portion of the movie, you have Damon and Blunt thinking they are in some kind of cosmic, mystical love story. But the film doesn't contain enough enchanting romance to classify it as one, in part because Damon and Blunt lack major chemistry.

Then, there's the science-fiction aspect of the story, where the Adjustment Bureau dudes, as long as they're wearing a hat or something, can speed from one location to another by going through doors that act as shortcuts to different locales. (A door at Yankee Stadium can lead to a subway exit miles away ... oooh!)

Norris, who wants them all to screw off, gets some of the secrets from sympathetic Adjustment Bureau guy Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie), who tells him the secret society can't get to him when it's raining, or some bullshit like that. This leads to a finale in which Norris is trying to break up a wedding while running like crazy through the rain and wearing a fancy hat. It's not the stuff of great science fiction.

So ... the result is a romance that isn't very romantic, and a potentially ingenious science-fiction twist delivered in a dull fashion. John Slattery of Mad Men plays Richardson, one of the mysterious destiny men, and he seems lost. There are moments when it almost seems like he thinks the movie is a happy one, while the story being told is actually full of doom and darkness. He delivers a lot of his lines as if he's exchanging snappy dialogue with Jon Hamm on his TV show.

Terence Stamp shows up as one of Richardson's bosses, and he also seems as confused. He hasn't been this one-dimensional since playing the evil Zod in Superman II—and that one-dimensional turn was a silly blast. In The Adjustment Bureau, he seems like he's walking onto the set and burping lines without knowing the mechanics of the plot ... or what's trying to pass for a plot.

Damon, as usual, works hard to put it all together, but the movie is just as unfulfilling and disappointing as Hereafter, his recent teaming with director Clint Eastwood. Blunt, who gets a couple of scenes to show off her dancing chops (she's great, but her choreographer sucks), doesn't get enough screen time to give her story with Damon much substance.

Nolfi doesn't seem to have a grasp on what kind of movie he was making. When Damon was running around in the rain with his stupid hat on toward the end, I half expected him to grab an umbrella and pause to perform "Singin' in the Rain." It wouldn't have been any stranger than anything that came before or after.

The ending is a predictable riff. Too bad Nolfi didn't choose a different path for himself and make a movie out of something less-complicated than a Philip K. Dick short story.