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.
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.