*The Adjustment Bureau (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Early in The Adjustment Bureau, there's a scene that, if the film were a romantic comedy, would be called "the meet-cute." The guy is David Norris (Matt Damon), a U.S. Senate candidate for New York preparing his concession speech after an embarrassing revelation sabotaged his chances; the woman is Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), hiding out in a stall of the hotel men's room where David rehearses in the mirror. Their interaction only lasts a couple of minutes, but zings with intelligence and instantaneous connection.
And there's no pressure for this scene to work, because all it needs to do is establish that these two people have been destined since birth to be together.
In its source form — a short story by Philip K. Dick — The Adjustment Bureau is an edgy tale of a man seeing behind the curtain of reality. Writer and first-time director George Nolfi takes a chance on turning that material into a love story and a meditation on the nature of free will. The fact that it succeeds as often as it does is testimony to how many little things Nolfi gets right in a movie that could have collapsed if that one opening scene hadn't worked.
The film's hook is something David sees that ordinary humans aren't supposed to see: He inadvertently stumbles upon the work of supernatural "case workers" tasked with steering people back on to the plan set out for us by "The Chairman." David agrees to keep the secret — the alternative being a complete "re-set" of his mind and personality — but there's part of the plan he doesn't know at the time.
The Chairman has grand plans for David's political future. And in order for those plans to come to fruition, David must never be allowed to re-connect with Elise, the girl he met one night years earlier but hasn't been able to forget since.
Nolfi does a terrific job of explaining details that might seem like arbitrary plot devices, as well as giving an ordinary mortal a fair shot against what are clearly the equivalent of angels. Nolfi wraps the exposition in sharp dialogue and performances that give the pronouncements extra significance. It's one thing to write speeches about why human action is manipulated by external forces; it's another, and wiser, thing to put those speeches in the mouths of excellent actors like Terrence Stamp, Anthony Mackie and Mad Men's John Slattery.
But that's just one indication of Nolfi's ambitious plan. Like Rod Serling's Twilight Zone episodes, this film wants to stow a lesson at the center of its suspense, which often is a recipe for heavy-handedness. Here, there's a deft touch at play, a chance to contemplate what it means when people believe there's a "plan" for them, as well as whether the braver life is one that submits to that plan or one that strikes its own path.
In a way, it all comes down to that meet-cute and its aftermath. It's a textbook example of efficiency in performance and narrative, because we're being asked to accept that someone is willing not just to sacrifice himself, but to change the destiny of the world for love. That's bold talk for a tight genre thriller that could have cruised on the prospect of chase scenes. Then again, that's what happens when a filmmaker chooses a distinctive approach instead of accepting that one way of doing things is inevitable.