The Adjustment Bureau is a beautifully filmed movie that asks viewers to suspend logic for a moment to consider bigger themes of humanity. The movie begins as a political thriller that morphs into a romance that morphs again into a science fiction/quasi-religious rumination on fate and free will—it is Serendipity meets Minority Report with a climax pulled straight from Vanilla Sky. No, Matt Damon is not dreaming the whole story, but the big picture is revealed to his character on the roof of a Manhattan skyscraper in the impressionistic glow of a sunlit New York morning. If your criteria for a good movie are that all the pieces fit and the plot is wrapped up neatly with a bow, then The Adjustment Bureau is not for you.

David Norris (Damon) is a young congressional superstar running for the U.S. Senate. On a losing election night, minutes before taking the stage to offer a concession speech, Norris shares a transcendent moment with a ballet dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt) in the hotel bathroom, but she must leave before he gets a name or number. Norris, however, is inspired, and his improvised speech helps him reclaim his political rock star status.

That chance meeting apparently derails the larger gears of world history, and the movie picks up the tempo as a vague group of men intercede. They wear fedoras and gray trench coats and carry Kindle-like devices that live-map the movements of certain important individuals (in this case David). They are members of the title Bureau, and they must reweave the strands of fate so that a chance encounter in a bathroom does not spoil David’s destiny, which is to be a world-changing U.S. president. The remainder of the film follows David’s attempt to thwart the Bureau and determine his own destiny, which he decides is to be with Elise. The Adjustment Bureau has other plans.

The members of the Bureau are confined by certain rules; after all, if they were omnipotent, then David wouldn’t stand much of a chance. These rules seem arbitrary, serving no purpose other than advancing the flimsy plot. For example, Bureau members can warp space using various city doors (in one scene David exits through a door in the Yankee Stadium outfield wall and steps through another onto Liberty Island) but cannot see characters near water. That plot device allows Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie), a bureau member sympathetic to David’s plight, to tell David things he is not supposed to know. So it is, on a rainy night, that Mitchell teaches David the system of doors, which will provide David cover as he reunites with Elise and forces the bureau to readjust its own plans.

The Adjustment Bureau is good movie that misses greatness because the story underlying the larger themes has too many kinks that are not properly worked out by the end, most notably the unintended suggestion that God lives at Top of the Rock. The cast is strong, the visuals are gorgeous, the themes are suggestive and interesting—the plot just needs too much adjustment.

However, there is something satisfying about seeing David fight so earnestly to determine his own fate. The ill-formed logic of the plot does not matter as much as the characters here, and Blunt and Damon have a chemistry that makes the viewer pull for them to be together, despite the unlikelihood that their initial moment in the hotel bathroom could have produced such profound feelings in either of them. Yet David and Elise seem affected by one another, enough to make them reevaluate their ambitions and ask what is really important in life. In the end, the movie portrays a battle between the power of history and the power of love, between fate and free will, between individual happiness and the collective good.

The most remarkable aspect of The Adjustment Bureau is the stunning imagery. As a set piece, New York is given such reverential treatment by the cinematographer that it looks like the city everyone in America longs to move to, that romantic place where anything can happen, even finding God at Top of the Rock.

Starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery
Run time: 105 minutes
Rated PG-13
Released March 4, 2011

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