Does anyone play the lost and/or tortured soul in search of meaning as often or as well as Matt Damon? We have essentially watched a 15-year-long existential crisis unfold on screen in the form of over a half dozen characters, nearly all of them played with an un-ironic earnestness that is oddly endearing and effective.
The list of his characters that have searched in angst for the answers to very important life questions is, on its own, enough to give anyone stress-induced ulcers: Will Hunting, Private Ryan, three turns as the deeply troubled Jason Bourne, followed by last year's role as a psychic who can connect with the afterlife in Hereafter. Damon even played a fallen angel in the vastly underrated Dogma.
And now we have The Adjustment Bureau, in which Damon's cinematic existential crisis returns with heavy questions about free will and our place in a universe as decided by a god-like figure called "the chairman." The chairman employs helpers known as adjusters who are there to make sure no one deviates from the plan. The adjusters wear nice suits and magical hats that allow them to open mysterious portals, and carry books that display a real-time roadmap of every human's life. If need be, they can freeze time, a trick that allows them to do some brainwashing on mortals who are not sticking to the plan.
Much like Inception, The Adjustment Bureau is a hard film to explain with any semblance of clarity or logic, because there is little of either to be found. Describing how and why things are as they are requires a level of expository dialogue that, paradoxically, tends to create more questions than it answers. That doesn't mean they can't still be moving stories and visually entertaining movies, as both Inception and The Adjustment Bureau are, but it does prevent them from being great films.
Our well-groomed adjusters in this film have a close eye on Congressman David Norris (Damon), whom we meet as he blows a big lead in his race for the Senate when a late-breaking scandal derails his campaign. Somehow the all-knowing "chairman" failed to see this scandal coming, and in order to ease the stunning defeat and to recalibrate Norris' promising future, certain adjustments must be made. That adjustment comes in the form of a ballet dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt), who Norris is supposed to meet only once.
But the adjusters, in what seems like a very arbitrary rule, can't prevent chance encounters, and of course it's not long before the smitten Norris and Elise have met again. This causes enough chaos in the grand plan that Norris soon finds himself behind the curtain and face-to-face with his unhappy adjusters, a group led by Richardson (John Slattery of "Mad Men" fame). These scenes, where the frantic bureau employees try to make quick corrections, are the movie's best.
Their failure to tidy things up sets off an elongated 90-minute chase scene wrapped around a pretty good love story. Norris must find creative ways of escaping his determined adjusters while keeping the secret from Elise. We hear lots about the ripple effect as Norris makes it harder and harder for his adjusters to keep things on track. There is great fun to be had in the Bureau's exasperation, and both Damon and Blunt are excellent as they pursue their will against a large, looming force. Damon is a stubborn man who refuses to accept that he is not in control of his own destiny. Sounds like a lot of politicians, but Damon is endearing and believable in his role.
Despite the solid performances all around, it's the über-convoluted storyline that cannot escape itself. For every interesting explanation (true free will, we learn, has been granted to humans at various times throughout history and the result was the Dark Ages and both World Wars), we get complex rules on top of more rules and explaining. We eventually hear rules about magic hat-wearing and which way to turn special doorknobs that must have been hard to deliver with a straight face. At the same time the film bogs down while trying hard to avoid religious connections while concurrently bombarding us with references to this all-knowing entity that is pulling the strings from above.
The Adjustment Bureau fails where fantasy movie masterpieces like Field of Dreams succeed. Not once did the filmmakers in Field of Dreams dare to try and explain why or how dead baseball players were emerging from an Iowa cornfield. Some things—whether it be baseball ghosts or men in suits who can alter free will—are probably best left as just fact. Explaining them is a fruitless endeavor.
Not all is lost in The Adjustment Bureau. The story is a good one. Just don't try too hard to understand it.
The Adjustment Bureau continues at the Carmike 10.