In the aftermath of the awards season, we scan the bleak horizon of new releases as if looking for signs of spring in frozen ground. Slim pickings. But this week boasts a surprisingly decent crop, and something for every taste. A scintillating Bradley Cooper is wired on super smart drugs and spars with Robert De Niro in Limitless; Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbinder breathe fresh life into the classic bones of Jane Eyre; and Seth Rogen brings his gruff charm to the role of chain-smoking, superannuated E.T. in Paul, opposite Brit buddies Simon Pegg and Nick Frost .
Paul is the weakest of the three films, a forced marriage between sharp English wit and the broad overkill of SNL sketch comedy. But even though this ramshackle road movie is less than the sum of its gags, there are ample laughs, while Pegg and Frost (who wrote the script) have some priceless moments as comic book nerds agog in the redneck wilds of America. For more on Paul, go to my video review.
Limitless, meanwhile, is an unadulterated blast. Rising star Bradley Cooper (The Hangover) makes a meal of his first leading role, cast as Eddie, a down-and-out writer who stumbles across a miracle drug—a transparent little pill that harnesses 100 per cent of his brain power and makes him super-smart. Eddie finishes his book in days, learns to play the piano overnight, masters foreign languages in a flash, and embarks on a business plan to conquer Wall Street. In his pharma-fueled rampage, there’s more than an echo of the ’80s cocaine craze that made various masters of the universe feel invincible, but the dream drug in Limitless, called NZT, seems vastly superior to any of its recreational antecedents. NZT won’t make you high; it just makes you “clear.” It seems like the perfect drug—as long as your stash doesn’t run dry—then things get nasty. Limitless is the kind of drug-porn flick that carries a vicarious kick. You can’t help but think: “I’ll have what he’s having.” And behind the quick wit and instant gratification lies the hot pulse of a crime movie—it has the ingenuity of soft-core Tarantino as various gangsters battle to control the NZT supply in a quest for world domination.
This brain candy fantasy is directed with eye-candy flair by Neil Burger (The Illusionist), who turns the camera into an omniscient space arm for Eddie’s quicksilver mind. But big credit goes to screenwriter Leslie Dixon (Hairspray, The Thomas Crown Affair). Her whip-smart script, adapted from a novel called Dark Fields, races along like a house-on-fire wit, convincing us that Eddie is as miraculously smart as he’s supposed to be. Her dialogue raises everyone’s game, including Robert De Niro’s. He’s cast as an old-school tycoon who uses Eddie’s wizardry to finesse a historic merger. De Niro has been on cruise control for years, but here he suddenly seems engaged, challenged.
Although Limitless is very much a guy movie—about men trying to stoke their unlimited ambition with an unlimited fuel supply—Abbie Cornish, who shone in the underrated Bright Star, makes the most of an underwritten role as Eddie’s love interest. As for Bradley Cooper, he’s made his career playing cold-blooded alpha males, kinda like an American Christian Bale. Here he’s cast in a heroic, sympathetic role, but the unnatural glare of those electric blue eyes animates the story’s Faustian theme with an ungodly glint of ambition.
For more on Limitless, and the current trend in brain-powered thrillers, see my piece in the magazine: Hollywood decides smart is now sexy.
I know what you’re thinking. Who needs another adaptation of Jane Eyre? The Charlotte Brontë romance on the moors, lodged in the bedrock of prototypical chick lit, must be one of the most frequently adapted novels in the English language. Since 1910, there have been 18 feature versions and nine TV versions. But what’s astounding about this seamless production—directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin
Nombre) and written by Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe)—is that it feels definitive. The filmmakers have employed a flashback structure to rejig the narrative, but aside from that, the rendering feels wholly authentic. It also feels bold and fresh without dubious overlays of modern hindsight. Shot in wide-screen 35 mm., the visuals have a rich cinematic lustre. But what really makes this Jane Eyre sing is the strength of the performances, and the dynamic chemistry between the two leads, who are separated by a dangerous age difference. Mia Wasikowska (The Kids Are All Right, Alice in Wonderland), who’s now 21, proves that she’s perhaps the most compelling actress of her generation. She’s attractive, but not distractingly so; her features refuse to to settle into a pose, throwing us off at every angle. And for someone so young, there’s a motherlode of intrigue behind the eyes. It’s as if you can see her carving out her maturity and confidence as the camera rolls. Fassbinder, who was so forceful in Hunger and Fish Tank, makes a richly charismatic Rochester, so entitled yet wildly fallible. And as the icing on the cake, an overqualified Judy Dench glides through her role as Mrs. Fairfax as if to the manor born.