A young New York politician, running for a Senate seat, seems destined for victory. The crowds love him, eat up his hard-luck story of growing up on the tough streets of Brooklyn, of losing his family at an early age. But who is that disgruntled looking man in the crowd, watching the campaign speech? An assassin? And who are the other mysterious men watching the politician, and why are they all wearing fedoras? Do they have anything to do with the embarassing photos that scuttle David Norris's campaign?
Indeed, they did. Norris (Matt Damon) loses the election, but moments before he makes his concession speech, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt), a ballerina. He's head over heels. Even more so when, by chance, he meets her again on a bus the next day. Ah, but there are the men in hats again. The snazzy, retro dressers are members of the adjustment team. Norris is a high maintenance case, requiring frequent "adjustments" because somehow, he keeps doing things that diverge from "the plan."
That's about all Norris finds out, and about all the audience finds out, in The Adjustment Bureau, a playfully serious metaphysical romance written and directed by George Nolfi, and based on Philip K. Dick's short story "Adjustment Team." (Dick is a seemingly bottomless cup of coffee when it comes to made-for-movies ideas.) Norris learns one more thing: the plan is written by some entity called "The Chairman" (to which I say, please, oh please let it be Frank Sinatra! It would explain the fedoras.).
It's probably not Sinatra, because Ol' Blue Eyes would not stand in the way of true love the way The Chairman does. (On the other hand, Dean Martin said of his fellow Rat Packer, "It's Frank's world and we just live in it.") Norris's caseworkers are Harry (Anthony Mackie) and Richardson (John Slattery), and they get between Norris and Emily again and again. Somehow, the two keep finding their way back to each other, destiny be damned. Ah, but the movie, or the Chairman, has a trick up its sleeve -- maybe Norris and Elise are meant for each other because it's in the plan, or could have been in the plan, or maybe true love is just that powerful. The question is, does it matter? And right there is where this movie quietly and sneakily pokes you right in that spot in your brain where you're not sure why characters in romantic stories are just supposed to be together, that little bundle of neurons where you're uncertain if it would be better if they were destined to be together (and had no choice about it), or if they just truly, madly, deeply, freely love each other, and ain't no mountain high enough, ain't no river wide enough to keep them apart. Does is matter why? Whichever side of the free will vs. determinism divide you sit on, there's no way you want Norris and Emily to be torn apart, not if you have an iota of romance in your metaphysically mystified heart. When Norris makes a run for it, a heart-pounding sprint for true love -- in the rain no less -- it is both a complete romantic cliche, and a fresh, original, high stakes take on the whole star-crossed lovers story.
Clever, that George Nolfi, chairman of the movie that kinda, sorta comes down on the free will side of things, but leaves some wiggle room for chance (not up to you!) and determinism (not up to you again!) when it comes to affairs of the heart. The bureau boys specialize in little maneuvers that nudge people back on plan when they stray, but changes of heart are above their pay grade.
The Adjustment Bureau is lighthearted, sweet, romantic, and a whole lot of other adjectives you don't normally encounter in a metaphysical, vaguely dystopian science fiction movie based on a Philip K. Dick story. Nolfi clearly diverged from the plan here, and created a quick, lively, and unlikely mashup of sci fi and romance that really works. It's smart, thoughtful, and clever too, and made with a minimum of special effects (aside from some nifty geographical thaumaturgy). The Chairman would approve.