Early in The Adjustment Bureau, there's a scene that in a romantic comedy would be 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; the woman is Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), hiding out in a stall of the hotel men's room where David is rehearsing in the mirror. Their interaction probably only lasts a couple of minutes, but it 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.
The Adjustment Bureau's source material, a Philip K. Dick short story, is an edgy little tale of a man seeing behind the curtain of our acknowledged 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 works 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 didn't work.
David sees something 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, but there's part of the plan he doesn't know. The Chairman, it seems, has grand plans for David's political future. And in order for those plans to come to fruition, David must never be allowed to reconnect 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 intended to be the equivalent of angels. There's a fair amount of exposition, but Nolfi wraps it in sharp dialogue and performances that give the pronouncements an extra kick of 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 terrific actors like Terrence Stamp, Anthony Mackie and Mad Men's John Slattery.
That's one of many indications that Nolfi has a clear and ambitious plan for what could have been just a simple chase thriller. Like Rod Serling's Twilight Zone episodes, The Adjustment Bureau 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 even with weighty matters in the balance, a chance to contemplate what it really means when people claim to believe there's a "plan" for them, as well as whether the braver life is one that submits to the plan or one that strikes its own path.
It all comes down to that first scene between David and Elise, and what Damon and Blunt do with that relationship. The Adjustment Bureau is 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 little genre thriller that could have cruised on the prospect of chase scenes and unstoppable eternal beings.