Matt Damon is always a vigorous and resourceful actor, but his fans don’t seem to support him in roles that wander too far away from fatuous, farfetched fiction. Despite what amounts to little more than a sleepwalking cameo in the deadly Cohen brothers remake of True Grit, this deserving actor has not had a hit movie in years. The silly, overwrought action flick The Adjustment Bureau is a stupid waste of time and talent, but it might be just what his fans are waiting for.
Since it is loosely based by writer George Nolfi (Ocean’s Twelve, The Bourne Ultimatum) on a short story by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, you would be right to expect another cookie-cutter Bourne thriller with sci-fi overtones. But Mr. Nolfi, who is also making his debut as a director, is another unfortunate Christopher Nolan wannabe, so the movie is a preposterous muddle that borrows heavily from Inception, without a single original idea. More accessible and less pretentious, The Adjustment Bureau is still the same kind of self-indulgent, alternate-reality riddle I never intend to see again.
You could write the plot on the head of a carpet tack. Matt Damon is David Norris, a bad-boy New York politician running for the U.S. Senate with his own mug shot from a barroom brawl. “What they say about me is I’m too young to run for this office,” he says. He is also too young to play this part. Never mind–the voters don’t care. He’s ahead in the polls. Then, on election night, a scandal hits the tabloids when a front-page photo splashes across the New York Post (natch) that shows him mooning his friends at a college reunion. With his ambitions dashed, his depression is lifted by meeting Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), a ballet dancer hiding out in the men’s room of the Waldorf-Astoria (don’t ask). The sexual attraction is instantaneous, fueled by contrived snappy dialogue. But every time the potential lovers meet, some mysterious force inexplicably drives them apart. Here’s the rub: David and Elise are being forcibly separated by a dark team of angels in banker suits called “Agents of Fate,” played by John Slattery (TV’s Mad Men) and Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker). The “adjustment bureau” is an organization of ruthless G-men–from a long line of the kind of laughable lunatics James Bond used to beat the crap out of before he turned the job over to Liam Neeson. Their job is to control the fate of every man, woman and child as set forth in a master notebook known only by God and Satan. If you fight your own preordained destiny, they have the power to expunge your memory, recalibrate your thoughts and destroy your dreams. If you try to expose them, they will erase your brain. David and Elyse defy the master plan by falling in love. To save her from the adjustment bureau, David deserts her. For awhile, his ratings rise again in the polls, and her career flourishes as she plans to marry her choreographer. But true love has a greater power than fate, and when they finally get their priorities straight, it’s up to the bureau’s top “fixer” (a wasted Terence Stamp) to reprogram them both. The special-effects team is always one step ahead of them. They open one door, and they’re in the middle of Yankee Stadium. Open another door, and they’re on top of the Empire State Building or riding the Staten Island Ferry. Guest appearances are made by Jon Stewart, Chuck Scarborough, James Carville and Mary Matalin. Mayor Michael Bloomberg also shows up, which explains what he’s doing when he isn’t shoveling snow. Free will is apparently the only thing that can defeat the adjustment bureau. The point of the movie is that it doesn’t matter what door you open, as long as you open it with someone you love.
Ms. Blunt works overtime, but she’s never surpassed her popularity in The Devil Wears Prada. This one is less embarrassing than The Wolfman, but nothing to write home about. Mr. Damon is an all-American boy in a world of dark screen personalities who always end up with better roles. He has fiber, but his soccer-team-mascot face and gumdrop eyes are too round and smooth and unchallenging, without an edge. He makes all the right moves, but there is just so much life you can breathe into a script that is dead on arrival.
The Adjustment Bureau
Running time 106 minutes
Written and directed by George Nolfi
Starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, John Slattery, Anthony Mackie