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Ann Hornaday reviews 'The Adjustment Bureau'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 11:59 AM

Matt Damon and Emily Blunt generate simmering, pleasurable heat in "The Adjustment Bureau," a smart, stylish thriller that melds science fiction, romance and Hitchcock-ian intrigue with surprising ease. Adapted from a Philip K. Dick story by first-time director George Nolfi, "The Adjustment Bureau" provides welcome respite in a season marked by 3-D offerings from Nicolas Cage and Justin Bieber, but no grown-up movies to speak of. Equal parts playful, sophisticated and engrossing, "The Adjustment Bureau" is like the first songbird of spring, signaling that the winter of our collective brain-freeze is over and it's safe to go back to the multiplex.

Damon plays David Norris, a preternaturally gifted New York politician who is on the verge of becoming the youngest U.S. senator when his career takes an unexpected hairpin turn: On the night of the election, he meets Elise Sellas (Blunt), a beguiling free spirit with whom he finds an instant, electrifying rapport.

It's a meet-cute for the ages, and Norris wants to see her again, but that's harder than it initially seems. Things get weirder - and decidedly more dangerous - with the arrival of a mysterious group of men in black who seem bent on keeping David and Elise apart. That un-merry band of malign angels is led by a dapper gentleman named Richardson, played by John Slattery in a fedora, overcoat and barely perceptible smirk that would look right at home on his character on "Mad Men." (For his part, Anthony Mackie plays the most sweetly bumbling seraphic being since Clarence in "It's a Wonderful Life.")

The retro look and classic feel of "The Adjustment Bureau" is but one of the myriad joys of a story that, while recalling the past in design and feel, often exudes the futuristic menace of such Dick adaptations as "Blade Runner" and "A Scanner Darkly." But Nolfi, who wrote "Ocean's Twelve" and "The Bourne Ultimatum," doesn't overplay the science fiction aspect of Dick's story, making sure to temper its trippier aspects with surprising humor and genuine romance, as David decides to outrun the Fates for the woman he loves.

"The Adjustment Bureau" culminates in a spectacular chase through a kaleidoscopic New York, where the Bronx is down and the Battery's up, and Yankee Stadium is only moments away from the Statue of Liberty.

Like "Inception" before it, "The Adjustment Bureau" does a dazzling job of folding time and space in on themselves. But in this case, the visual effects are even more seamlessly integrated into the story, never overwhelming its delicate balance of existential dread and old-fashioned yarn-spinning. It's a balance Nolfi pulls off with exceptional dexterity and skill, making "The Adjustment Bureau" not just a welcome harbinger of spring but an introduction to a director of gratifying promise.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains brief strong profanity, some sexuality and a violent image. 106 minutes.

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