LIMITLESS and THE LINCOLN LAWYER
At some point during my double-feature of Limitless and The Lincoln Lawyer, I was reminded, as I frequently am, that we filmgoers don't really need more great movies from Hollywood. We just need more good movies - smart, strong, satisfying releases that only want to entertain, but manage to do so without attempting to overwhelm you, or demanding that you first check your intelligence at the auditorium door.
We need, in other words, more movies such as these thrillers by directors Neil Burger and Brad Furman. No one is going to mistake either Limitless or The Lincoln Lawyer for a work of brilliance, let alone Art. But when they're really humming along, which is often, you can both hear and feel the happy, connected buzz in the audience, that too-rare sensation of a film crowd collectively recognizing that the movie they're watching is, perhaps to their surprise, an enormous amount of fun.
I say "perhaps to their surprise" primarily in regard to Limitless, because let's face it: Burger's pharmaceutical thriller could've gone wrong in a few dozen different ways. (It really only goes wrong in about a half-dozen, which isn't bad.) Bradley Cooper plays Eddie Morra, an unkempt, slacker author with a book deal and a serious case of writer's block who, through his discovery of an underground miracle drug called NZT, gains the ability to access his full brain capacity. Within a few days of his self-medication, Morra cleans up his appearance, completes his novel, learns a few foreign languages, and proves himself a master at the stock market, earning the attentions of a powerful Wall Street magnate (a sadly yet typically dyspeptic Robert De Niro). As with any drug, however, there are downsides to NZT. And while numerous warning labels might mention the "leg pain" and "occasional blackouts" Morra begins to experience, far fewer would likely caution the user about "implication in murder" and "violence at the hands of a Russian loan shark."
I'll admit that the initial introduction of the Russian-loan-shark subplot did make me roll my eyes, as did the early realization that Morra was going to narrate the tale in first-person voice-over, that laziest of screenwriting conventions. Yet beginning with its opening credits - a fast-motion scoot through the streets of Manhattan that David Fincher would've been proud to claim - Limitless displays a confidence and cleverness that I, for one, was wholly unprepared for. Treating its engaging, slightly silly quasi-sci-fi premise with serious yet remarkably playful conviction, Burger does a masterful job of visualizing the synapses in Morra's brain; scenes in which the man quickly gleans how best to placate his landlord's shrill girlfriend, or take on a sextet of subway thugs via Bruce Lee films, boxing matches, and an instructional wrestling video, beautifully illustrate the potential power of stored memory. And while Burger's staging of the film's more traditional thriller passages is always admirable (the tension in Limitless' shoot-'em-up finale, set in Morra's penthouse, is fantastically well-sustained), he's even better with the fringe, throwaway moments. I've seen a lo-o-ot of movies, and never before have I seen the shot where a man runs outside to vomit, and - thanks to an inventive, 180-degree camera spin - winds up puking upward.
To be sure, the movie, with its script by Ellen Dixon (adapting Alan Glynn's novel), has its patchy elements - that suspicion-of-murder angle never really amounts to anything - and I wish that the glittery-eyed, reptilian Johnny Whitworth (as Morra's untrustworthy former brother-in-law) and the ever-wonderful Abbie Cornish (as Morra's girlfriend) were given more to do. But Cornish is at least granted an excellent showcase in which she's briefly allowed to be a kick-ass action-flick star, and the movie is chock-full of scenes that pack a similarly funny-yet-exciting punch. As for Cooper, he's still a bit on the bland side, but he's certainly dedicated and sincere, and carries his unexpectedly multi-dimensional Limitless role with charm and natural ease. (I'll admit, though, that I did chuckle when one of his voice-overs informed us that Morra had no memory of the 18 hours that just transpired, because I was half-expecting Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis to subsequently pop up.) At this stage in his film career, Cooper is everything a movie star needs to be but interesting. Of course, you could say the same thing about Tom Cruise, and that guy hasn't done so badly for himself.
A thriller in a completely different vein, director Brad Furman's The Lincoln Lawyer also stars someone who could frequently be described as everything-but-interesting, but one of the film's many, many pleasures it that it manages to make even leading man Matthew McConaughey look damn near exceptional. In this adaptation of Michael Connelly's novel, McConaughey portrays the slick shark Mick Haller, whose office is the back seat of his Lincoln Town Car, and whose latest case finds him defending an inscrutable trust-fund baby (Ryan Phillippe) charged with assault and battery. It's been so long since we've been treated to this kind of sharp, juicy legal thriller - a genre that, in the '90s, you couldn't get away from if you tried - that I'd rather not reveal any more of the plot. Suffice it to say that complications and red herrings ensue, a battalion of marvelous character actors (among them Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy, Josh Lucas, Michael Peña, Bob Gunton, Frances Fisher, Bryan Cranston, Margarita Leviera, and Shea Whigham) adds depth and texture, and the eventual courtroom scenes had my audience reacting with such audible delight that this film experience practically became an interactive one.
The camerawork features a few too many needlessly flashy zooms, and the movie has its share of bum ideas, none lamer than its employment of a cutesy motorcycle gang that could have ridden in directly from the set of Mask. Yet Furman directs with speed and alacrity and pulls off some truly shocking twists (there were loud gasps my screening, a couple of them from me), and McConaughey's self-satisfied, drawling charisma has rarely been put to better use. From what I understand, The Lincoln Lawyer is just one of several Mick Haller novels written by Connelly, and if it keeps McConaughey from appearing opposite Kate Hudson and Jennifer Garner in more wretched rom-coms, I'm totally on board with handing the guy a film franchise.
As someone who's seen Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz more times than he can count, I expected - nay, demanded - greatness from Paul, the latest on-screen collaboration between co-stars and co-writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. I didn't get it, but this genially crude sci-fi comedy still delivers a fair amount of great things. Director Greg Mottola's film casts the British duo as best buds and über-geeks who, after a delirious experience at Comic-Con, wind up face to face with an actual alien (voiced by Seth Rogen, which should tell you everything you need to know about the spacething's personality), and agree to drive the bald, big-eyed creature to his rendezvous with his mother ship. Along the way, they pick up a Christian fundamentalist (Kristen Wiig) enjoying her first taste of freedom and have a number of scrapes with the girl's shotgun-wielding father (John Carroll Lynch), a dogged FBI agent (Jason Bateman), a pair of knuckleheaded cops (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio), a couple of vengeful rednecks (David Koechner and Jesse Plemons), and a malevolent, mostly unseen government official (the blessedly inevitable Sigourney Weaver).
Yet it's my unfortunate duty to report that despite the setup and madly inspired ensemble - and that's not even mentioning Jane Lynch, Jeffrey Tambor, Blythe Danner, and, in a vocal cameo, Steven Spielberg - Paul's just not that funny. Or rather, it's not consistently funny. Mottola, who seemed much more assured on Superbad and Adventureland, frames the action well, but his timing nearly always seems about a second or two off; you almost wish there were a laugh track to cover the frequent dead air. Too many characters, such as that gun-toting Bible-thumper and those two rednecks, wander through aimlessly, as though they know they've been given running gags but don't know what they are. (The movie is chock-full of near-jokes.) And considering that the film is such an unapologetic bear-hug to its genre inspirations and its Comic-Con fanbase, it's surprising, then, that so much of the humor is so hateful; aren't Pegg and Frost above this movie's relentless, un-ironic gay-baiting and use of "Fag!" as a punchline? (This exclamation got huge laughs at the screening I attended. It was like living in the '80s all over again.)
Still, no movie showcasing Pegg's and Frost's lovely, effortlessly endearing camaraderie can be altogether disappointing, and Paul has plenty of other amusements, besides: the country-Western band that performs a subtle riff on the Star Wars cantina theme; the E.T. nod that finds Paul, dressed as a cowboy, posing as a mannequin; Wiig getting high and going through every stage of stoner-dom in a tidy five seconds. (Nearly all of the best moments in the movie are Wiig's.) Plus, as a person who routinely vacillates on whether it's Citizen Kane or Close Encounters of the Third Kind that deserves acknowledgment as The Best Movie of All Time, Paul's opening and closing scenes are almost ridiculously satisfying. I can't foresee myself watching Paul to the obsessive extent that I've viewed Pegg's and Frost's previous big-screen partnerships, but eventually, I'll probably still give it four or five more tries, just to be sure.