For a film that treats on the themes of free will and the identity of God, The Adjustment Bureau is an awfully light-headed popcorn movie. Upon reflection, I think this is all for the good: better for these concept-heavy sci-fi thrillers with pot-addled-freshmen-late-night-bull-session philosophies to dismiss themselves & save the rest of us the work: it's been a scant eight years since The Matrices Reloaded and Revolutions demonstrated in a particularly harsh way what happens when filmmakers take faux-profound ideas too seriously (hell, it's been a scant eight months since Inception, depending on your tolerance for that movie).

So no, I do not think I will say much against writer-director George Nolfi, adapting Philip K. Dick's short story "Adjustment Team", for emphasising the running around and being action-ey parts of The Adjustment Bureau, and not so much the theoretical underpinnings of the idea. Which idea, and quite Dickian in it is, is that there are beings that subtly adjust the world around us to bring about more desirable ends; the story hints and the movie states outright that these beings are what people (Christian people in the West, anyway), refer to as angels, and the Chairmen of the bureau is better known, if inaptly, as God. The Adjustment Bureau does its job quite nicely, until a New York politician with a tendency to shoot from the hip and cause irritating wrinkles in the Chairman's plan, one David Norris (Matt Damon), manages quite by accident to stumble across an adjustment team in the middle of their work.

That's the idea, but not really the plot. The plot is that David met (by plan) a free-spirited dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt), and got a crush on her; then he met her again (not by plan), and fell in love with her, and then he spends most of the movie fighting the Bureau's attempts to throw obstacles between him and Elise, on the grounds that the two lovers will never reach their full potential if they end up together. Which is an appealingly anti-romance undercurrent to an otherwise bog-standard "watch as two people fight destiny to be together" picture. Okay, not "bog standard". That phrase could never be used of a movie that plays around with reality as much as The Adjustment Bureau does. But in its heart of hearts it's the latest retelling of Romeo & Juliet, with God's peevish bureaucracy standing in for warring families.

Nolfi (a first-time director who worked as writer on Ocean's Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum, and hence knows from Matt Damon popcorn movies) more or less punts on the metaphysical issues the film raises; and he's only interested in explaining the actual workings of the Adjustment Bureau insofar as it is required to advance the action. The individual viewer may be inclined to substitute "botches" for "punts", though by about minute 10 of the film, I'd resigned myself to a film that would be heavier on spectacle than on thoughts, and it made The Adjustment Bureau an awful lot of fun, frankly. In essence, it's a feature-length chase scene, or a daisy chain of chase scenes: watch David run around trying to find Elise, then watch him run around trying to evade the men in suits and hats from the Bureau. If that sounds tedious, well, it's not not tedious, though at 105 minutes, The Adjustment Bureau manages to wrap at more or less the exact moment that it starts to seriously wear out its welcome, in the face of a kind of terrible, re-shot ending that's still probably the best conclusion for material that is, at heart, a conceptual hook and not a narrative.

Anyway, the chase is a hoot: there's a swell angle in which the adjusters are able to move from space to space in the blink of an eye using normal doors as portals to other places all over New York; once we learn how it ostensibly works, it doesn't quite hold together, but it has an undeniable coolness factor, particularly in an early sequence when David keeps rounding corners in his office and running into the same be-suited man at every turn - immaculately edited by the great Jay Rabinowitz), and then again in a very late sequence in which David darts across Manhattan in a massively ambitious series of location-jumping long takes (or, I suppose, "takes") that scream in a particularly show-offy way, "Wouldja just look at how crazy ambitious we're being, stitching together all this footage using all sorts of digital foofaraw, absolutely as smooth as silk? Isn't that stupidly cool? Fuck you, then". Whatever his other failings, Nolfi is a wizard at keeping his setpieces tight as a drum, and there comes a point in the film, several points even, where that's all that matters.

And so it is that The Adjustment Bureau is a driving, entertaining paranoia thriller, even if it is nothing else, which it isn't. Damon happily takes his character only seriously enough to be reasonably believable, without apparently buying into the True Love Conquers All nonsense that keeps threatening to swallow the movie whole; John Slattery and Terence Stamp are extremely satisfactory antagonists (Stamp especially, to nobody's surprise; it helps immensely to have read this Glenn Kenny piece), more functionaries than bad guys, both actors managing to deliver the movie's most portentous dialogue without laughing, even managing to make some of it sound awfully persuasive (as a secondary villain turned good guy, the fine Anthony Mackie get stuck playing a rather odd new-fashioned iteration of the Magical Negro).

It's handsomely brooding, shot by John Toll in that overcast, about-to-rain outdoor lighting he does better than everyone else; Thomas Newman's score is a bit overbearing at times but generally it's just far enough on the right side of tacky that it gives the film a bit of heft. And so on, and so forth - it's a tremendously competent film that has just enough audacity in its execution to make it worthwhile. The thematic underpinnings are damnably hokey, true, and the film does itself no favors by focusing on them in the endgame, but on the whole the film seems like such a lark that its sometimes incoherent script is more of an annoyance than a fatal flaw. It's a breezy film masquerading as a sincere one, and while that's obnoxious, it's hard to hate a fun night at the movies.