By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 9:57 PM
God is in the details. So are the best movies.
"The Adjustment Bureau," an enormously entertaining speculative thriller starring Matt Damon, would earn its kudos for ambition alone. An adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story, this is a movie of myriad genres and tonal gradations, including classic science fiction in the tradition of "Blade Runner" and "The Matrix" and the doomed romance of "An Affair to Remember." Throw in the conspiratorial intrigue of "The Manchurian Candidate" - and a first-time director to keep it all straight - and the singular achievement of "The Adjustment Bureau" becomes all the more impressive.
Working from his own script, director George Nolfi has executed the cinematic equivalent of a twisting, tumbling high dive with precision and finesse. He proves himself just as adept with dazzling feats of visual imagination as with human emotion, which, while less spectacular, entails a higher degree of difficulty.
Granted, to enjoy "The Adjustment Bureau" most profitably, the viewer must engage in some powerful suspension of disbelief. Damon plays a gifted young New York politician named David Norris, who, as the movie opens, is wrapping up a campaign to become the state's youngest U.S. senator. Handsome, charismatic and hot headed, Norris is practicing a crucial speech in a Waldorf Astoria men's room on election night when he meets Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) as she steps out of one of the stalls. The fact that Elise is hanging out in the gents' is but the first tip-off that she's a free spirit. Within moments, they're lost in the badinage of two people on the brink of something big.
As a couple, David and Elise are clearly meant to be, but it turns out that David's future may have other plans. The Fates are aligned in the form of the title outfit, led by a no-nonsense operative named Richardson, played by John Slattery in a crafty, deadpan take. At one point, Richardson explains to David that his life course is being overseen by a shadowy figure called "The Chairman." The identity of that omnipotent figure is never disclosed, but from the looks of the retro-perfect hats and overcoats Richardson and his men wear, it's either Frank Sinatra or "Mad Men's" Bert Cooper himself.
Slattery's martini-dry turn as Richardson - as well as Anthony Mackie's doe-eyed performance as a bureau rookie named Harry and the always deliciously malign Terence Stamp as head agent Thompson - injects notes of wry, antic humor into "The Adjustment Bureau," which in less adroit hands could have become a ponderous exercise in self-serious style. Instead, Nolfi consistently resists the temptation to overreach, tempering David's fight against destiny with welcome jolts of sprightly, irreverent wit.
As a simple race-and-chase, "The Adjustment Bureau" succeeds on the purest cinematic level, especially in a wowser of a climactic pursuit that recalls "Inception" in its mind-bending tour through multiple doors of perception. (Nolfi clearly knows his way around cats and mice, having written "Ocean's Twelve" and "The Bourne Ultimatum," among other films.) Handsomely staged as a valentine to New York at its most timeless, the sequence seamlessly integrates shots of everyday Manhattan with visual effects that suggest the Bronx is down and the Battery's up.
For all these flourishes, the most gratifying rewards of "The Adjustment Bureau" aren't in structure and craft alone, but in Nolfi's grasp of the details, which ground even its most preposterous plot twists in an authentic world. From the outset, the movie smoothly captures contemporary political culture as Norris makes the rounds from "The Daily Show" to the cover of GQ. (The filmmakers of "The Adjustment Bureau" reportedly piggybacked on Damon's publicity tour for "The Informant!" to film him bantering with Jon Stewart.)
A succession of cameos ensues, including by pundits Mary Matalin, James Carville and Wolf Blitzer and by political players Terry McAuliffe, Mike Bloomberg and Madeleine Albright, with Damon looking every bit the focus-grouped ward heeler throughout. The capper comes when Norris delivers a mini-masterpiece of Sorkinian political rhetoric that, in its savvy, sophistication and self-award candor, could have sprung fully formed from Jed Bartlet's speechwriting shop. ("The Adjustment Bureau" also understands the peculiarity of political fame: When Norris arrives at a crowded nightclub at one point, he isn't deluged but politely acknowledged by the few people who know who he is. He's a rock star, but only in a mediasphere where Scott Brown possesses a Q rating somewhere between Justin Bieber and Richard Lugar.)
As satisfying as it is to watch a movie in which sci-fi speculation on fate and free will co-exists so easily with references to Sarbanes-Oxley, "The Adjustment Bureau" gets the boy-girl thing right, too. As James Franco and Anne Hathaway now know too well, chemistry is everything. And within moments, Damon and Blunt generate sparks that fly not between superbly compatible physical specimens but real people.
When Elise taunts David about his tie or he makes winking reference to the length of her skirt, there's a giddy, invisible vibration between them, created by the tuning fork of inside jokes and shared references. Even though their relationship is threatened by an utterly absurd existential danger, it's been established with such real-world gestures and rhythms that, when David decides to fight for it, the audience is right there with him.
What Nolfi understands and "The Adjustment Bureau" conveys so subtlely is that romance is less a function of grand physical passions than the quiet, unmistakable jolt of two sensibilities meeting and recognizing and protecting each other. Even if they're played out against the most mind-bending alternate realities, those are the affairs we remember.
The Adjustment Bureau rrrÂ½ (106 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for brief strong profanity, some sexuality and a violent image.THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU