'The Adjustment Bureau' succeeds but not as action flick

A conspiracy thriller loosely based on a short story from the paranoid imagination of sci-fi writer Philip K.  Dick does not precisely sound like the source material for a successful romantic/ action/comedy movie starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt.

And based on the marketing, that’s not the movie audiences might expect to see when The Adjustment Bureau opens March 4.

The promotional materials for Bureau try to sell the paranoid thriller aspect. One trailer highlights a darker, doomed-lovers message and the TV spot places emphasis on smashed cars, a body crashing into a windshield and the main characters running, running, running.

A poster shows Damon and Blunt running (again) through Manhattan as shadowy figures loom over them. Another features a grey faceless, fedora-wearing agent in an image that recalls Rene Magritte by way of Mad Men. Still another poster has our two pretty movie stars looking hard and uneasy, eyes cast slightly behind them at unseen pursuers.

But these images, while engaging, fail to serve potential audiences not interested in what appears to be a Dark City mindbending reality flick - and also sets up a disappointing scenario for viewers looking for exactly that. The Adjustment Bureau isn’t an action movie, or science fiction conspiracy flick or ill-fated lovers romance.

Actually, it’s a happy mashup of all three.

The plot revolves around rising star New York politician David Norris (Damon in full-on bad-boy charmer mode) who meets Blunt’s impetuous dancer Elise right before he is to give a scripted concession speech after a devastating loss. Her passion and spontaneity inspires him to give an honest, impromptu speech that results in him redefining his image and keeping his chances alive for another election – all the while the action is observed by mystery men in suits and fedoras.

And that was supposed to be it; she was supposed to exit from his life. A few months later, however, one of the mystery men falls asleep on the job and Norris boards a bus he was never meant to be on and
encounters Elise again. Norris gets her number this time and proceeds to walk into the offices of his new job and catches more men-in-suits (and a few in tactical SWAT gear) performing a laser lobotomy on a
friend frozen in time. Norris escapes the pursuing suits before finally learning from them that he has received a “behind the curtain” peek at the universe. And the mystery characters are part of a team of
guides who keep individuals moving according to plan – hence the name, the Adjustment Bureau.

Norris is assured that he’s special, but that his second meeting with Elise was a mistake. He is allowed to leave on the condition that he keeps what he saw secret. As time goes by, Norris must choose whether to fight fate, overturn chance and pursue free will, at the risk of defying the Bureau and upending both his and Elise’s life plans.

That’s the appeal of The Adjustment Bureau, directed by first-timer George Nolfi (who co-wrote The Bourne Ultimatum). It has more in common with The Truman Show than with The Matrix. After getting a glimpse behind the scenes of his world, Damon’s Norris measures what’s important in life and must choose whether to use his rule-breaker personality to take on the Bureau. Blunt’s Elise has the energy of a woman Norris might want to fight for and she especially woos him (and the audience) in her first scene.

Meanwhile, the agents, technically the villains who share cinematic DNA with other men-in-black and conspiring Big Brothers, aren’t present to destroy so much as to threaten, obfuscate and distract. They can stop time, whitewash minds, and pop in and out of any New York City door via a cosmic “substrate” tunnel system – and track every human using a smooth Moleskine-esque journal with the technology of Google Earth running on an iPad.

But the bad guys never seem so menacing, especially not when led by Mad Men’s John Slattery (still somewhat irascible and stuck in the ’50s). Even the Big Bad played by Terrence Stamp seems to prefer to argue sense in Damon’s character over really getting dirty.

The Adjustment Bureau is a metaphysical mindtrip and “what if?” film about fate and free will. Yet, it remains fun without getting so caught up in big questions of love and destiny that it begins to ooze pathos like the Nicolas Cage weeper City of Angels. The pace drags slightly in the middle, but the action picks up just enough to get the film moving again.

Individually seen as a conspiracy thriller, action movie or romance, The Adjustment Bureau would fail – and it still might unless audiences have a clearer idea of what the movie is about – but as a light, pseudo-philosophical flick with some fast-paced scenes, it works.