The Adjustment Bureau is a conceptual thriller, a kind of meat-and-potatoes, clunky brain twister in Inception-mode. It centers on ambitious senatorial candidate David Norris (Matt Damon), an authentic, no-bullshit politician who has risen to the ranks of beloved working class hero. Things start off pretty shaky with the film’s proposition that David has blown his chances at a Senate seat with the revelation that he engaged in the frat boy prank of “mooning” in his wilder days. With governors running off to Argentina for dalliances with their mistresses and presidential candidates taking up with stalker videographers, is this the best writer and director George Nolfi (a co-screenwriter on The Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean’s Twelve) can do for a legitimate reason for this favorite son to be politically destroyed?

With his Senate hopes dashed, David returns to civilian life. But he remains obsessed with the gorgeous, free-spirited avant garde dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), whom he met the night of his senate concession speech. Elise represents a crossroads in David’s life. If he pursues her, he gives up his political ambitions. If he returns to politics without her, he runs the risk of being emotionally unfulfilled.

A film about the fickle finger of fate, The Adjustment Bureau is based on the short story “Adjustment Team” by Philip K. Dick. You can see the germ of a good philosophical idea here, a potentially fascinating meditation on our choices in life. But it never quite plays out in a satisfying way in the film. Most people never ponder such either/or choices in their lives, but David has no choice but to existentially navel-gaze on whether pursuing Elise could be the end of his career dreams. He has unknowingly stumbled upon a vast conspiracy run by Mad Men-looking guys in gray flannel suits led by that show’s own John Slattery. Slattery is one of the minions in the adjustment bureau, a secret subculture of men headed up by Thompson (Terence Stamp) whose job it is to keep human beings on fate’s proper course.

As orchestrators of the future, the bureau keeps a library of books filled with the life’s path of each human being in their care. Seems at one time people were graced with free will, but historical events (like both World Wars) convinced the adjustors that humans couldn’t handle that kind of freedom. Now they plot out humanity’s every move and leap into action if necessary, like when David veers from his path in order to pursue Elise. Teenagers in love with meddling parents haven’t worked as hard to be together as this star-crossed couple. Director Nolfi creates a world that operates by its own internal logic, but it’s a tediously explained, relatively boring logic centered on magic hats and a point made early on that you have to wait for the plot to circle back to. Nolfi may have put so much time and energy into the star-studded cameos that open the film — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Jon Stewart, James Carville, Mary Matalin — that he forgot to pay attention to the real meat of the matter.

The Adjustment Bureau raises the intriguing notion of how we define happiness in our lives. Is it a satisfying existence measured by contentment in our personal life or is it measured by success in our professional ones? It’s a compelling idea, but poorly executed here. At every turn, the film makes one aware of the thin line in fantasy flicks separating a great story from a shaky plot whose shoddy workmanship makes being carried along nearly impossible. Christopher Nolan’s Inception was in the former category: a crazy, harebrained story that actually worked. Film is funny that way. Even the goofiest plot line can beguile us with great writing, acting, special effects, and a lightning pace to keep those doubts of “Could this really happen?” at bay. But The Adjustment Bureau is far too long-winded and too complicated when it explains the where and why of its tangled plot to have us suspending disbelief for very long.

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