A short story by Philip K Dick, first published in 1954, has been freely adapted by Bourne screenwriter George Nolfi, who has turned it into a glitzy futurist conspiracy thriller, starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. It’s played entirely straight, but overlaid with a correctly judged note of jaunty absurdity, as if a new version of The Manchurian Candidate had been written by Charlie Kaufman. This is an essentially light-hearted picture, and – with a pinch of salt – slips down pretty nicely as a dark, speculative comedy on the themes of love, free will and fate.
David Norris (Damon) is a dynamic young congressman running for the Senate in New York. He’s going great guns at the polls until an embarrassing drunken episode makes the papers and his numbers go south. His victory party turns into a horrendous wake, but inspired by a chance meeting with a beautiful, free-spirited woman called Elise (Blunt), and with nothing to lose, David horrifies his PR minders by ripping up his platitudinous, damage-limitation speech about battling on and instead denounces all politics as nonsense. Yet his feisty sincerity captivates the public anyway and somehow his political career is back on track.
However he tries to avoid it, high office appears to be his destiny, and Norris soon discovers the existence of a shadowy group called the Adjustment Bureau, who are dead set on making Norris do what they want and crushing his inconvenient romance. Soon, David and Elise are in danger of their lives, menaced by a group with terrifying powers, apparently including the power to manipulate reality.
Damon is well cast as the conceited, whitebread candidate, troubled by an aversion to his own vocation. Blunt, despite an uncertain Anglo-American accent in the opening scene – it settles into being more or less Brit – wears her role lightly. They meet cute in the men’s bathroom of a New York hotel, and the subsequent conversation is amusing and romantic. On the run from these agents of metaphysical threat, they find that the rectilinear world of Manhattan is a mess of crisscrossing wormholes, not subject to the usual laws of time and space. They will wrench open a door, to find it leads somewhere dismayingly unexpected, as if in the opening cartoon credits of the Pink Panther and, like the Pink Panther, they have no option but to shrug and carry on.
The Adjustment Bureau is not a film to be taken seriously in any way, but it has an interesting idea at its heart: successful politicians are people who are unlucky in love. Happiness dulls the fighting spirit; only a broken heart can give you the anger and hunger necessary for real political victory. It could well be true.