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The work of novelist Philip K. Dick has tempted many filmmakers — from Steven Spielberg (Minority Report) to Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall) to Ridley Scott (Blade Runner). So it hardly would be surprising if sci-fi fans are licking their chops in anticipation of The Adjustment Bureau, a new movie based on a 1954 short story by Dick.

To them, I say, “Slow down.” By the end of this generally disappointing movie, you may well be licking your wounds.

Damon discovers Fate's angels
Damon discovers Fate’s angels

The Adjustment Bureau is a misguided trifle that teams Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in a romance that’s constantly facing obstacles.

Dick’s ideas about free will and fate ultimately play second fiddle to romance, and writer/director George Nolfi even tosses in some feel-good sentiment at the end, perhaps as a way of appeasing those who’ve been put off by the movie’s overly glum approach.

Damon plays David Norris, an attractive young man who’s running for the U.S. Senate. When the New York tabloids expose one of Norris’ indiscretions (an immature but minor incident), he loses his lead in the polls. On the night of his election loss, Damon’s David winds up talking to himself in the men’s room of a Manhattan hotel. Suddenly, Blunt’s Elise emerges from a stall. It’s an unlikely but interesting meeting, and it successfully establishes some real chemistry between an affable Damon and an unfettered Blunt.

The script then proceeds to clobber Damon and Blunt with obstacles, most supplied by bland-looking men in fedoras. These men, who work for something called The Adjustment Bureau, look like bored mid-level executives. It’s impossible to say much more without spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that.

John Slattery, familiar from TV’s Mad Men, and Anthony Mackie, who garnered high praise for his work in The Hurt Locker, are among the “adjusters” (my word, not the movie’s) who race around Manhattan, sometimes using extra-normal powers to keep David and Elise apart.

Writer/director Nolfi does well enough with some scenes, but he doesn’t seem to have figured out how to make the whole enterprise credible. The Adjustment Bureau is a romantic fantasy and sci-fi meditation that never quite gels.

Perhaps the movie’s best visual ploy involves the way adjusters are able to move from one environment to another simply by opening doors. Open the door to a boardroom and they may find themselves in the substrata of a Manhattan street or, better yet, in the middle of Yankee Stadium, a spacious view that provides relief from what can be the movie’s airless environment.

The Adjustment Bureau forces Damon and Blunt to fight against the film’s contrivances, which, alas, don’t make a whole lot of sense. Worse yet, the mystery Nolfi builds drains away when characters stop to explain things, always a bad sign. The more we know, the less interesting The Adjustment Bureau becomes.

No matter how much Damon and Blunt look and act like lovers who can’t keep their hands off each other, they can’t turn The Adjustment Bureau into something that feels urgent and real. I suppose there’s an irony in that: Two lovers spend the whole movie reaching for each other, but the movie holds us at arm’s length.