No one should envy a single person who drew the short straw and was stuck working on the marketing campaign for 'The Adjustment Bureau,' a movie so defiant of the Hollywood norms we're used to that it's impossible to market it accurately.
The trailers would have you believe that George Nolfi's directorial debut is a thriller about Matt Damon discovering that a secret, time-stopping agency comprised of very fashionable men controls the destiny of all mankind. Even the posters, which are all staged as a though they're frozen snapshots of a man on the run, pitch it as a thriller. And of course Nolfi's script is itself an adaptation of 'Adjustment Team,' a short story from the same man who gave Hollywood 'Total Recall,' 'Blade Runner' and 'Minority Report,' so it's certainly understandable to assume it's straight sci-fi.
But 'The Adjustment Bureau' is not wholly sci-fi, nor is it wholly a thriller. It has hints of both, yes, but it's ultimately such a unique romance of genres and sentiments that its essence simply can't be distilled in a two-minute trailer or a single image. Which is precisely why Universal's marketing campaign for it has been so off target. It's hard to blame them, funnily enough. When a genuinely original film like 'The Adjustment Bureau' makes it through the Hollywood system and comes out the other side (mostly) intact, it must be downright alien to them.
Yes, Nolfi's film is an adaptation of a Phillip K. Dick story, which would seem to negate the use of the word original no matter how loose of an adaptation it is, but as far as big studio fare starring the likes of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt goes, 'The Adjustment Bureau' is about as original as it gets. Damon stars as David Norris, a politician whose affable working man personality has him poised to be a shoe-in for the Senate. However, the surprise arrival of a tabloid-esque photo saps Norris' momentum heading into election night, killing his campaign. Fortunately, while rehearsing his concession speech in the men's bathroom, fate shines down on David, introducing him to Elise (Emily Blunt).
Unfortunately for the pair, their relationship just isn't meant to be, as a series of accidents conspires to keep them apart. Until one day David discovers that those events aren't accidents and that a group of logic-defying men in suits (played by Anthony Mackie, John Slattery and Terence Stamp) have been covertly altering his life any time chance threatens to bring the two together. Despite all of the adjustment team's best efforts, despite warning David that they will erase his entire personality if they have to, he just cannot shake the woman of his dreams from his thoughts and will do whatever it takes to be with her.
Even on paper, 'The Adjustment Bureau' sounds like it's going to be a riveting sci-fi thriller, but that's not the plan here. It's still riveting, but not because David is chasing a MacGuffin or racing against the clock to beat a plot-driving deadline-- it's because Damon and Blunt have a truly profound chemistry together that renders all of the film's speculative elements window dressing versus the actual centerpiece. And that's a truly wonderful thing; this is a film that doesn't just wear its heart on its sleeve, it wears an entire three-piece suit made of hearts.
In fact, writer-director Nolfi is at his weakest when trying to integrate some of the story's wilder elements. He does a tremendous job of slowly defining the rules of the adjustment team and what they're capable of, but when it comes to how they do it, Nolfi stumbles with subtlety. These functional plot devices don't feel insincere, and they're well-explained, but they're not nearly as inspired as David and Elise's relationship, which makes their usage come across as a necessary evil of trying to sneak an original film past the studio goalies.
Thankfully these aspects don't drag the overall film down, but they do blemish it. Perhaps, as was the case with 'Blade Runner,' executive intervention did tarnish the theatrical release. Perhaps a home video release down the line will drop what unarguably needs dropping, allowing Nolfi to show and not tell at all the right moments. But even if it doesn't, even if 'The Adjustment Bureau' does have a few permanent bruises from running the Hollywood gauntlet, it's still a valiant effort about reconciling destiny and desire that pays off in intelligent, playful and memorable ways.
Related: The 5 Best Philip K. Dick Movies ... and 5 We'd Like to See