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The Adjustment Bureau

Sure, everybody talks about free will, but nobody really wants to do something about it. In a way that people don't want to admit, it would be nice to chalk things up to something more than coincidence. After all, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy and all that.

New York Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon) isn't too happy to discover that we're all subject to forces beyond our ken. Not on the small things; for the most part, stuff still just happens. But if you veer too far from "the Plan," you're subject to The Adjustment Bureau.

But then Norris has always seemed to have a problem with authority. Despite being a likable guy and a reasonably honest politician, a strong self-destructive streak keeps threatening to derail his career. On the eve of a Senate loss, he meets his free-spirited dream girl in a men's room.

This quirky apparition Elise (Emily Blunt) inspires David to make a concession speech that somehow re-inflates his political chances down the road, and then disappears from his life, seemingly forever. And that's just the way it's supposed to be …or is it?

The Adjustment Bureau veers back and forth between the edges of a romantic comedy about a politician and a dancer, and a suspense thriller about a plot to move said politician forward in his career no matter the cost. What keeps pushing it into Twilight Zone territory is that those working to ensure fate are essentially angels – through the paranoid filter of Philip K. Dick (from one of his short stories, "The Adjustment Team" ).

Dark-suited, mundane and wearing hats, these middle managers of fate possess powers of telekinesis, teleportation and conservative haircuts. They also carry notebooks that serve as supernatural GPS, tracking both geography and destiny in one handy interface.

Written and directed by George Nolfi, The Adjustment Bureau has the charming low-tech feel of Rod Serling's classic television series. John Slattery's Agent Richardson could have walked right out of a half-hour episode. By the time you notice how slick it all is, the movie will have settled in with its charm.

Lightly paranoid and relentlessly moving, the only problem with it is that it doesn't seem to have a place to move toward. David and Elise must be kept apart, causing their case to get kicked upstairs to Thompson (Terence Stamp). Though Thompson can offer explanations as to why, the overall stakes never really feel gripping. The craggy angel has increased power and Stamp's chalky voice, but he never becomes a palpable threat.

But that's the thing about the Plan. It's all so ineffable, and unless you're really talking Armageddon, it just doesn't seem that crucial. The Bureau is here to nudge, to adjust, but rarely to force. (Though if you read between the lines early on, it's clear that Heaven would like us to adopt green technology.)

It's an interesting but by now not terribly original vision of the Powers That Be, trapped by its own bureaucracy and dogged thinking. Both Wings of Desire and Beetlejuice offered similar thoughts. But Nolfi presents it with just enough style to keep an audience's attention, and at times fool us into thinking more is going on than really is.

Damon anchors that effort. Despite recent protests that he's not interested in politics, he does exude the charm that a dream politician would have. To further root his character, Nolfi surrounds him with real political talk show hosts on both sides of the spectrum, revealing two things: yes, American political punditry can be bought and Jon Stewart is strangely unconvincing as himself.

Fairly convincing as the free-spirited dancer, Blunt plays things relatively low-key for a manic pixie dream girl. For the most part, she's not asked to do much more than either get lost in Damon's eyes or act like she's trying not to get lost in his eyes.

Everyone in the Bureau itself has been cast for their standard look and demeanor. Slattery has settled into a bemused easygoing vibe from project to project, and it fits the tone just right. Lesser agents are interchangeable, with the exception of Anthony Mackie as Mitchell, who has lost his taste for manipulating mere mortals.

It all adds up to a little less than what it promises, but The Adjustment Bureau isn't bad. It should have just been adjusted into something a little more suspenseful or romantic or …something. Instead, it's inoffensive and pleasant, never carrying the creeping paranoia that most adaptations of Philip K. Dick bring to the screen, but obviously meaning to try.

Perhaps, though, it was meant to. At the screening I attended, the film broke three times, almost as if someone didn't want us to see it, or maybe that the fate of the free world depended on that refill of popcorn. It certainly adjusted my scale afterward.

Derek McCaw

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