At 7:05 a.m. one New York workday, former Senate hopeful David Norris was supposed to spill his coffee. That meant he’d dash home to change clothes. That meant he’d miss his bus. And that meant he wouldn’t run into Elise, whom he once encountered in a hotel bathroom when he thought he was alone, working on his concession speech the night he lost the election. They were to go their separate ways, and all would be right with the world.
At least that’s how things are run in The Adjustment Bureau, writer-director George Nolfi’s adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story. Nolfi’s directorial debut is like Sliding Doors crossed with The Matrix, an entertaining sci-fi romance that’s exciting in more than the usual will-they-or-won’t-they ways. Because the force keeping our central couple apart isn’t wacky friends or crazy exes or ridiculous self-doubt. It’s men in hats.
Yes, it sounds moronic, but trust me. David (Matt Damon, as always a low-key charmer) is a reformed fratboy and political wunderkind. When he meets Elise (Emily Blunt) in the bathroom, they have a fine conversation but never swap info because she’s kinda on the run, having crashed a wedding at the hotel. So David is thrilled to see her on a bus shortly afterward—he never did spill coffee on himself, because one of the men who pulls the strings, Harry (Anthony Mackie), was dozing. Oopsy.
But David + Elise is not part of The Plan, so the men in hats (led by John Slattery) resort to intimidation to keep the two apart. Because he is now ahead of his intended time line, David catches a glimpse of the Adjustment Bureau at work: When he walks into his office, high from running into Elise, he barely notices his co-workers are frozen as he runs to tell his confidante Charlie (Michael Kelly) the news. But Charlie is also inanimate; he’s having his brain recalibrated by the bureau, a group whose work one normally never sees. But David does, which means a stern talking-to and the threat that should he ever reveal what he’s seen, his memory and life will be wiped. He’s told he and Elise are to stay apart, but not why.
What makes The Adjustment Bureau so intriguing is its butterfly-effect premise, applied to potential lovers who seem so natural together. Nolfi, who penned The Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean’s Twelve, may have David and Elise meet cute, but once they do their conversations are easy and realistic, not the too-clever (or, worse, thinks-it’s-clever) crap you find in most romances. Damon and Blunt’s characters are likable and decently rounded, with ambitions beyond getting laid. They’re worth rooting for against the shadowy types keeping them apart.
Until you find out—as David inevitably does—the reason why. Even before that, though, the ideas of fate and freedom keep The Adjustment Bureau compelling. (One of the senior adjusters, played by Terence Stamp, explains that humans only appear to have agency, because during one of the periods in which they were granted it, “We had the Dark Ages for five centuries.”) The film is a curious little hybrid of actioner and love story, with a sense of danger that keeps things moving at a quick clip. There are even some cool effects: Those hats allow the adjusters to teleport through doorways, which means a character can jump from, say, a courthouse to Yankee Stadium to Ellis Island. At its heart, the film is a sweet romance, but with its heady ideas and exciting action, there’s no room for treacle.