For three decades, Hollywood has had a love affair with the late pulp author Philip K. Dick, who penned the source material for the twisty, high-profile sci-fi adventures Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report. Filmmakers dig Dick because he delivers so many ingenious what-if premises, but they regularly add hopeful endings and revise his work beyond all recognition. Dick's cinematic suitors resemble the kind of lover who promises eternal devotion, as long as you get plastic surgery and extensively change yourself.
The Adjustment Bureau, based on Dick's short story "Adjustment Team," begins by joylessly establishing David Norris (Matt Damon) as a rising political star. History's youngest congressman, David loses a Senatorial bid because of a minor scandal that confirms his bad-boy reputation. As he morosely writes his concession speech in the men's room of a New York hotel, David chances to meet Elise (Emily Blunt), a young beauty whose free-spirited ways inspire David to deliver his speech with refreshing candor.
The next day, enigmatic figures in 1950s-style suits keep tabs on David as he begins his post-political career. The strangers belong to the Adjustment Bureau, a kind of supernatural bureaucracy that can manipulate time, space and simple twists of fate to keep human destiny on track. They carry notebooks containing constantly swirling glyphs that represent the trajectory of one person's life, and inform David that he's forbidden from seeing Elise again. Despite their love at first sight, their relationship would send their lives — and possibly the human race — in the wrong direction.
The Adjustment Bureau contains some peculiar slapstick set pieces as fate literally conspires against David's attempts to reunite with Elise: He can't get a cell phone signal, the only available taxicab gets wrecked, etc. With grey flannel agents cockblocking a befuddled normal person, The Adjustment Bureau presents a Kafkaesque spin on the John Cusack/Kate Beckinsale romcom Serendipity.
Debut filmmaker George Nolfi struggles to give the film a steady tone, alternating awkwardly between Murphy's Law comedy, star-crossed love story and the surreal paranoia of an Inception knockoff. Damon and Blunt approach the material with breezy enthusiasm, but can't establish David and Elise's tenuous connection as a love for the ages.
The Adjustment Bureau only seems to get its footing in its final act, when David finds an unexpected ally and challenges the celestial establishment. With a space-warping race through the streets of New York and magic hats (magic hats!), the film builds to a fast-paced, unguessable and entertainingly nutty finale. It doesn't redeem the film's painfully tame message, however, and Nolfi qualifies as the latest in a line of filmmakers unready to embrace the dark tones of Dick's work.
Ironically, the films that feel most faithful to the author's spirit aren't even Dick adaptations. Movies ranging from Videodrome to Primer to most of Charlie Kaufman's screenplays convey the anxiety that reality has slipped its tether, with protagonist and audience alike trapped in a waking nightmare. The Adjustment Bureau, like most films based on Dick's work, would rather give moviegoers pleasant dreams.