Chemistry wasted in high-concept romance. 

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Good grown-up romances are rare at the movies these days. Comedies tend to be weighted down with gross-out gags. And when modern big-screen romances get serious, they tend toward sap. A couple of years ago, Up in the Air broke through this problem, pairing George Clooney and Vera Farmiga as a couple of savvy, adult business travelers. That relationship was the best part of Up in the Air, but in its pursuit of the zeitgeist, the film kept pushing the relationship aside for a muddled take on economic upheaval.

The Adjustment Bureau, which pairs Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, is of lower wattage, but it has similar strengths and weaknesses. The concept that engulfs the romance here doesn't aim for topical, like Up in the Air, but instead for timeless — a take on the tension between predestination and free will that is ultimately neither as thoughtful nor clever as the film seems to think.

Damon is David Morris, a Brooklyn native on the political rise, trying to parlay his status as "the GQ congressman" into a Senate seat. Blunt is Elise, an aspiring contemporary dancer. They meet-cute in a hotel bathroom minutes before David, having suffered an unexpected defeat, is set to give his concession speech, but a wedding-crashing Elise has to scurry away from security before they can quite figure each other out.

The next morning — in what appears to each of them as a wild coincidence — David and Elise meet again on a bus. They fall into an immediate rhythm. He gets a call. She dumps his phone in his coffee. She gives him her name and phone number, and, as she's getting off the bus, he buries the lead: "I lost the election last night, and the only thing I could think of this morning was you." She frowns, eyes sparkling, and flips him off. It's fate.

Turns out, it is. David and Elise — and, apparently, the rest of us — are being tracked by "the Adjustment Bureau," a team of "men in black" types tracking their movements. These case workers report to a "man upstairs." We learn that David and Elise were once "meant to be together," but then the plan changed. The powers that be have bigger plans for David and see the relationship as a threat to his political destiny. When David finds out what's happening, the battle between free will and predestination commences.

The Adjustment Bureau, based on a story by Philip K. Dick, is trying for whimsical, but the philosophical/religious gamesmanship feels dumbed-down. It also pulls the plot into a climactic chase scene that has the couple running around Manhattan, wasting their chemistry.

The romance is a screenwriting invention (the film was written and directed by George Nolfi, who penned The Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean's Twelve), but it's really the only thing that works here. All of Damon's and Blunt's scenes together that don't involve puzzling over the plot or fleeing their adjusters are terrific. Blunt's sour charisma and suffer-no-fools intelligence has long come through in her performances, making her a good match for the similarly unpretentious, generally non-emotive Damon. These characters — and these actors — amuse one another over and over again. But the plot keeps getting in their way.

Opening Friday, March 4th

Multiple locations

The Adjustment Bureau
Rated PG-13 · 106 min. · 2011
Official Site: www.theadjustmentbureau.com
Director: George Nolfi
Writer: George Nolfi and Philip K. Dick
Cast: Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Anthony Mackie, Terence Stamp, John Slattery, Daniel Dae Kim, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Michael Kelly, Liam Ferguson and Anthony Ruivivar

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