Mixing science fiction with romance is a dangerous idea. As with most dangerous ideas, it can, on rare occasions, result in brilliance (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). But often the result is a mess.
The Adjustment Bureau makes a mess of the Philip K. Dick short story “Adjustment Team” by designating romance as the driving force of the narrative. The original story was another one of Dick’s slick “what-if” wonders: What if each of our lives proceeded according to a larger, cosmic plan? What if a team of strangers manipulated our paths in tiny ways to keep that plan in place? What if one ordinary guy, by chance, got a glimpse of these strangers at work as they attempted to alter his own life? In The Adjustment Bureau that man is David Norris (Matt Damon), a Senate hopeful with a bright political future ahead of him. On the eve of a crucial election, however, he runs into Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), a scattered ballerina whose impulsiveness wins his heart, even as it throws a wrench into his political career. And so arrives a team of mystery men who try to alter things – and get rid of Elise – in order to put David’s plan back on track.
The Adjustment Bureau, written and directed by George Nolfi, isn’t without its romantic charm. There’s something moony in its notion that a sudden kiss has the power to change an entire life, while Damon and Blunt make for a flirty, passionate pair.
But they’re in the wrong movie. Even though it’s woven into the larger story, their sweetly sincere romance remains at odds with the sci-fi elements that pepper the film: the time-space portals, parallel universes and menacing strangers in dapper hats. Too often, Damon resembles a besotted, middle-school boy who’s chasing his crush not at recess, but in The Matrix.
The focus on romance also waters down the philosophical and theological implications of the original story. The characters in The Adjustment Bureau spend a lot of time – too much time – talking about what it all means, alluding to angels, free will, destiny and fate. There are even references to “the chairman,” a mysterious being pulling all the strings. Even with all of this, the ideas and romance in The Adjustment Bureau both feel perfunctory and – worse – separate from each other. More than anything else, the movie is awkward – it can’t decide whether it wants to be about God or Cupid.