As most of us already know -- and The Adjustment Bureau is eager to confirm -- angels are watching over Matt Damon. Blessed among actors, he can charm us as the resilient Jason Bourne, then amuse us as the addled hero of The Informant! without breaking stride.
Cradled in Damon's solidly reliable hands, even a movie as extravagantly silly as this one gains heft and credibility, an impressive accomplishment when you consider that the entire plot revolves around magic notebooks and spellbinding hats.
Plucked from the seemingly bottomless well of Philip K. Dick short stories (albeit in heavily revised form), The Adjustment Bureau is filled with nattily dressed men running hither and yon like Mad Men rejects, searching for an exit from a paranoid screenplay. Their purpose is to tidy up the life lines of important people, making "adjustments" when they stray off course. Apparently human beings, left to their own devices, will engineer global destruction, and the Bureau's unseen boss -- referred to only as the Chairman -- has a much better plan.
Right now he's especially concerned about David Norris (Matt Damon), a loose-cannon politician who needs to be headed to the White House. Instead, he's losing a Senate race and dallying in the men's room of a posh Manhattan hotel with Elise (Emily Blunt). What Elise would be doing there is anyone's guess; even the film's writer and newbie director, George Nolfi, just pulls a reason out of thin air.
But Blunt could sell MapQuest to prison inmates, and five minutes of zingy repartee and hot looks later, she's gone, he's smitten, and the Bureau is in a tizzy to prevent them from ever meeting again.
"Let's get him back on track," says one of their boys (the dapper Mad Man, John Slattery, at this point unimaginable without a rakishly tipped fedora). But not even the man upstairs can get between Norris and his hormones, and what follows is a cycle of David meets Elise, the Bureau erects obstacles, David loses Elise.
Everybody loves a do-over, but this could become tedious were it not for the undeniable chemistry of the two leads, whose dialogue crackles like cellophane. Unlike the vapid heroines of most of our rom-coms, Elise is a smart, sinuous flirt with a bold gaze and a directness that Norris finds irresistible. By the time they've had soft-focus, American-movie sex, the Bureau knows the only way it can win is to bring on the special effects.
Stuffed with doughy exposition on free will and determinism (mostly dumped on poor Anthony Mackie, playing Norris's personal watcher), The Adjustment Bureau is a moderately diverting bit of fluff marred by an atrociously lame ending. Cameos by Jon Stewart, Michael Bloomberg and Jesse Jackson scarcely brighten the movie's omnipresent gloom, with cinematographer John Toll turning the city into a gray graveyard filled with skyscraper tombstones.
(I was consoled, however, by the appearance of Terence Stamp as a kind of hit man known as The Hammer. Maybe Tom DeLay was busy?)
Given the casting, Bureau would have fared better as a political thriller or straight-up romance without all the metaphysical hooha. Like the melancholy watchers in Wings of Desire (and its Nic Cage/Meg Ryan spawn, City of Angels), the Bureau men don't seem to like their job very much, and when we catch a glimpse of their workplace -- a vast, old-fashioned library filled with scribbling supernatural drones -- we can see why. In the near future, it seems, even the age-old dance between chance and fate has been corporatized.