Cinematic adaptations of sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick’s work tend to fall into two categories: Either they jettison his offbeat pulp-meets-psychedelia sensibilities and use only the rudimentary set-up of a story as the basis for an action movie (Next, Paycheck, etc.), or they burrow deeply into his heady ideas and come up with something off-kilter and sometimes brilliant (Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly). The Adjustment Bureau, based on Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team,” sort of splits the difference; it certainly isn’t an action movie, but it does take Dick’s initial concept (about a secret group of beings that “adjusts” things to keep humans on a predetermined path) and spins it off in a completely new direction.
In this case, that means making it into a romance: Instead of a married suburbanite as in Dick’s story, the main character of The Adjustment Bureau is up-and-coming politician David Norris (Matt Damon), who meets the woman of his dreams (Emily Blunt) by chance one night and is then whisked away by mysterious forces, told the secrets behind the workings of the world and ordered never to see the woman again. Except this is True Love, so David spends years looking for another glimpse of the woman, a dancer named Elise whom he spots again by chance just as it seems hope is lost.
So David and Elise must fight for their love in the face of (literally) the forces of the universe, and Adjustment belatedly turns into a sort of chase thriller, with bureau agents doing everything in their power to prevent the couple from being together. The mix of romance and sci-fi is a little awkward at times, and the movie sometimes feels like it’s at odds with itself. But writer-director George Nolfi holds back from turning the film into a special-effects extravaganza, and Damon and Blunt have a strong chemistry, which is important when we’re meant to believe that they’ve fallen in love after just a few minutes together. Adjustment eventually embraces a few too many romance-movie clichés (including a last-minute rush to stop a wedding), but its approach to the genre is skewed enough to feel fresh.