Limitless and Win Win

Cutting corners for fun and profit

Limitless

Limitless suggests a pressing need for some new movie awards. Wittiest Use of Severed Body Parts could be one, along with Coolest Use of a Pool of Blood and a first-ever nod for Most Brilliant Use of a Small Child as a Weapon. The picture is about an insidious new brain-revving drug, and it’s been directed with such pulpy gusto that at several points you feel as if you’d gulped down some of this electrifying wonder-stuff yourself. The story, adapted from a novel by Alan Glynn, is very Philip K. Dick. If only Dick’s work were more often served half this well on the screen.

Bradley Cooper, emerging into full stardom here, is Eddie Morra, a blocked writer who’s hit rock bottom. Eddie is failing to write a book for which he’s already been paid an advance; he’s broke, and his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) has just dumped him. One day he encounters an old acquaintance on a New York street, an oily operator named Vernon (Johnny Whitworth). Vernon was once Eddie’s coke dealer; now, he says, he’s a “consultant” for an unnamed pharmaceutical firm—and he happens to have the solution to Eddie’s writing problem. It’s an experimental drug so new it doesn’t even have a name yet—the “boys in the kitchen,” Vernon says, have dubbed it NZT-48. What does it do? Well, you know how most people only utilize about 20 per cent of their brain? This new substance, Vernon says, allows access to all of it—everything you’ve ever known and forgotten, every faded skill and unexplored potential. Vernon gives Eddie one pill, Eddie knocks it back, and—kerrang!—suddenly he’s an omni-competent overachiever.    

This premise offers a lot of opportunities for straight popcorn fun, and director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) seizes every one of them. Eddie, now intensely focused, finally finishes his book—in just four days. He learns to play piano really well in three. He also becomes fluent in a number of languages in no time at all. He discovers a new aptitude for playing the stock market, too, and soon he’s rolling in dough and reeling in the world’s hottest women. And as Eddie’s brain lights up like a disco ball, Burger lays on all the effects you’d expect, but with a winningly giddy spirit, as if he’d just discovered them. He hauls out the fisheye lenses and the acrobatic camera moves and he barrels through the neon canyons of Manhattan at warp speed, assisted at every turn by the unrelenting electro-metal assault of Nico Muhly and Paul Leonard-Morgan’s score.

NZT turns out to have a downside, of course—Eddie’s ex-wife (Anna Friel) calls to warn him about it, but oddly resists a face-to-face meeting for further discussion. Soon dead bodies begin accumulating, and Eddie starts attracting attention. He spots a sinister stranger on his trail, and some nasty Russian thugs, too. Also taking an interest in Eddie—now an overnight high-finance hotshot—is corporate titan Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro, fully engaged), who wants to access the new kid’s valuable brain for his own devious purposes.

Bradley Cooper, with his laser-blue eyes and air of sleek command, carries the movie with faultless style; and Leslie Dixon’s script is unexpectedly funny, especially in Cooper’s droll voiceovers. (“What was this, a drug for people who want to be more anal-retentive?”) The story’s ending might have been a preordained cliché—Eddie learns his lesson, kicks his NZT habit, and retreats with relief back into his old loser life. Instead, though, the movie concludes with a pretty slick twist. It’s a wild, brainy ride.

Win Win

These are tough economic times, not least in suburban New Jersey, where Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a small-town lawyer with a dwindling clientele, has just executed a desperate maneuver to raise money to support his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), and their two kids. Mike has signed on as legal guardian for Leo Poplar (Burt Young), a wealthy old man who’s sinking into dementia. The job brings in a court-approved $1500 a month, but Mike is spending very little of it on Leo. Instead, he’s installed the amiable codger, whom he really likes, in a very nice old-age home. Which is working out fine, as long as the court doesn’t get wind of it.

But then Mike finds himself saddled with a new responsibility: Leo’s teenage grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who’s been sent from Ohio to live with his grandfather. Kyle has no dad, and his mother’s away in drug rehab, so Mike reluctantly takes him in, quartering him in the family basement. Kyle seems like a sullen kid, and with his mop of bleached-blond hair and impressive array of tattoos, he bears an unsettling resemblance to a noted rap star. Locking the basement door before turning in one night, Jackie says, “I’m not taking any chances with Eminem down there.”   

But Kyle turns out to have been a champion high-school wrestler back home, which is great news for Mike, who coaches the local high school wrestling team—a sad-sack unit distinguished only by its dedication to defeat. Mike enrolls Kyle in the school and soon—coming alive in the sport he loves—he’s inspiring the team toward what could be its first championship season. Things go well, then not so well, and complications accumulate—especially after the arrival in town of Kyle’s mother (Melanie Lynskey), fresh from rehab and determined to cut herself a piece of her father Leo’s estate and then drag Kyle back to Ohio.

Win Win may be the best film yet from indie writer-director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent). The story—high-school wrestling? rest homes and rehab?—is fresh and immediately engaging, and the characters have a carefully-crafted individual glow. The actors are terrific, of course—Giamatti and Ryan are the very soul of connubial devotion, and Bobby Cannavale gets off some wonderful comic riffs as Mike’s best friend. But the movie’s most exciting presence is Shaffer—an actual top-ranked high-school wrestler who’s never acted before. (Well, except for one performance in a sixth-grade school play.) With his warm baritone voice and cool, uninflected delivery, he effortlessly charges every scene he’s in. And of course he really can wrestle. Shaffer may not be a “professional” actor, but that’s almost certainly about to change.

Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.

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  • Tim||

    Never heard of either of these. Don't go all art house on us.

  • Old Mexican||

    Win Win may be the best film yet from indie writer-director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent).


    It took me a while to realize that the term "indie film" meant Independent Film and not "from Indiana."

    I know, it is not the kind of brilliant realization like "Golly, there are sure a lot of gay contestants on those Bravo reality shows," but cut me some slack - I'm a foreigner.

  • ||

    I enjoy Kurt's reviews, but anyone who can say "Bradley Cooper, with his laser-blue eyes and air of sleek command" with a straight face has some sort of dysfunction with their brain.

  • Cyto||

    Man crush.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Episiarch,

    anyone who can say "Bradley Cooper, with his laser-blue eyes and air of sleek command" with a straight face has some sort of dysfunction with their brain.


    Maybe he thought that nobody would take him seriously if he added "well, at least that is how my mother described him in the movie theater!"

  • ||

    So it sounds like there is a fair amount of graphic violence in Limitless? I was already interested in the concept, and i dig Bradley Cooper, but promises of graphic violence are just icing on the cake. I wish there was some kind of Blood Splat Rating System for violence afficionados like myself.

  • Franklin Harris||

    Bradley Cooper strikes me as the poor man's Matthew McConaughey, and that's already a low-rent neighborhood.

  • ||

    If he is poorer than McConaughey, than he must be underwater by 250K and has 340K in HELOC
    And for anyone ready to off themselves, but not quite able to pull the trigger, just slip into the DVD "Failure to Launch" - the only problem would be that you can only kill yourself once, but you'd be wishing to kill yourself a thousand times.

  • Mike E||

    Isn't that the name of a Powerman5000 album?

  • surlybear||

    I understand Reason's position on leaks in the media, but can we draw a line on spoilers? Jeebus, Kurt, give me a chance to see the flick.

  • Franklin Harris||

    I liked Limitless better when it was called Flowers for Algernon.

  • ||

    That's a bit harsh. Bradley Cooper may have been in The Hangover but he's not actually a retard.

  • ||

    You sure about that?

    The best part of Flowers for Algernon the book is when he gets really retarded again. God, that was brutal. And I love me some brutality.

  • Ted S.||

    I thought it was originally The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.

    (Today happens to be Kurt Russell's 60th birthday.)

  • ||

    Hmm, might be time for The Thing then.

  • Almanian||

    The Thang was on TEEVEE just the other day. That's a shut down all other activities and get the beer out CLASSIC from my college days.

    As is another great KR gem, "Big Trouble in Little China."

  • ||

    Whaddya think I just popped out to the shops for? :)

  • Middle Age Crazy||

    The BTLC reference made me wonder if James Hong is still with us. He is! 82 years old. What a career.

    “Who are these people, friends of yours? Now, this really pisses me off to no end!"

  • Mensan||

    Mortal Kombat totally ripped off Raiden from Big Trouble in Little China.

  • ||

    It seems like The Thing is on the TV every dang time I turn on the box lately. I think to myself, "I just saw that movie again two weeks ago, and last week, and the day before the day after yesterday".

    But guess what? I watch it again.

  • Hate Potion Number Nine||

    Actually, it's "Lest we remember" by Isaac Asimov. Seriously.

  • ||

    You're so right! It's "Lest we remember", Definitely.

  • Plate-O||

    Pedantic note: The "humans only use 20% of their brain" factoid is an urban myth.

  • Almanian||

    You've not been watching C-Span lately.

    Wait - "humans" - never mind...

  • President Barbie||

    The urban myth used to be only 10%, so I guess we're getting better.

  • Almanian||

    Again, I continue to appreciate the reviews. Had hoped Limitless would be good - sounds like it's worth checking out. With my son, who likes "actional" movies.

    Thanks again, Kurt and Reason!

  • Fluffy||

    I like the idea of Limitless but I want to hear the twist before I decide if I want to go.

    Did the ex-wife use it? Does it turn you into a giant roach or something? Is that why she won't meet him in person? TELL ME THE TWIST DAMN YOU.

    I keep waiting for some enterprising dealer to develop Ritalin-Squared and put it out on the black market. That's where the money is. Forget the "superdrug" in this movie - if you had a drug that even added just 15 IQ points every kid in the Ivy League and at every decent science and math program in the country would pay any price for it. Not to mention the China market.

  • Ga||

    Why do Kurt Loder's reviews always give away the entire plot? Some of us have not seen it yet...

  • Christian Toto||

    There's nothing quite as comforting as entering a Paul Giamatti movie (with the exception of "The Lady in the Water"). He never hits a false note.

  • juris imprudent||

    Oh I beg to differ - Shoot 'Em Up sucked in almost every way imaginable, and I found Sideways about as boring as My Dinner With Andre.

  • Mensan||

    Ahem!

    Fred Claus
    Paycheck
    Big Momma's House

  • Hooha||

    TWO positive reviews in ONE article?

    You're doin' it wrong!

  • ||

    Limitless looked sucky in the commercials, but I might check it out if you recommend it. Maybe it was just the stupidity of the 20% meme that turned me off. At any one time, humans might be using 20% of their brain, because different parts of the brain are used for different purposes. But humans definitely use 100% of their brain.

  • Fluffy||

    In the previews, it's the dealer who says the 20% line. If you wanted to hustle a drug like this to schmucks, you might use a line like that to give them some frame of reference to "get" what the drug will do, even if it worked in a completely different way.

    At least, that's a good way to retcon the stupidity out of the movie, if you want to.

  • ||

    Dragging up that old nonsense about humans only using a small portion of their brains, although more often given as 10%, is one of my list of inevitable cliches that signal a severe creativity failure in SF TV series. Every series gets around to it if it runs long enough. Along with invisibility, shrinking to tiny size, body switching, and a few others. At least on Farscape they acknowledged these were cliches and had some fun with it. Such as when many of the characters were reduced to the size of mice for easy prisoner containment and one of them was going insane trying to figure out how this could possibly work or if it was an illusion.

  • mbtshoesbest||

    great posting. I like to read it.

    http://www.mbtshoesbest.com

  • ||

    Nice twist ending, there, Kurt. You had me thinking you were going to pan "Win-Win," then you write that it's worth seeing.

    I'll check it out. I think I might wait for Netflix to watch the movie with the A-Team guy.

  • sophie||

    Last quote heard from Toni’s dad after abruptly leaving for good upon hearing that his wife was pregnant with their one and only child.

  • Jan||

    Thanks4Sharing

  • nike shox||

    is good

  • double cut saw||

    It is a contant across the ages and there have been the shams across the ages as well. But truth and beauty will endure - we will see how this turns out.

  • xiingguan||

    This movie has some lebron 9 for sale of the same flaws I saw in another attempt at a faithful adaptation of a work of fantastic literature long thought unfilmable, Zach Snyder’s 2009 version of Watchmen...That is, it lebron 9 china for sale struck me as a series of filmed recreations of scenes from the famous novel

  • xiingguan||

    asdvgasvcasv

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