Not every week brings us New York ambition mania, a new Jane Eyre, an alien invasion, and a smart vehicle for Matt McConaughey.
“I took my first pill,” wrote Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception. “An hour and a half later…I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation — the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.” What mescaline did for Huxley, seeking (under close supervision) a new vision of reality, would be only a fuzzy warm-up for ambitious Eddie Morra in Limitless.
Using mystery pills given him by a desperate, untrustworthy man, Eddie (Bradley Cooper) overcomes his writer’s block to create a brilliant book, masters classical piano in days, picks up foreign languages as if by osmosis, and profitably games the stock market. This attracts the grasping attention of tycoon Carl Van Loon, played as a gray barracuda by Robert De Niro.
Though he doesn’t have the Milk Duds–chomping fun of billionaire Marlon Brando in The Formula, De Niro is a classy accessory for the story. Another is Abbie Cornish as Eddie’s love, though she often seems packaged as the return of Sharon Stone. Andrew Howard, rising up from movies named Pig and Isle of Dogs, is a truly frightening villain, and he has a moment involving blood that puts most vampire films to shame.
Limitless, an addiction movie, is fairly addictive. Its real drug is ego, super-charged by Eddie’s amazing rise as the Man With the Golden Brain. New York, a glassy maze of success and threat, becomes his feedback loop of narcissism. Cooper plays a hustler almost as compulsively as Christian Bale did in American Psycho. It is a smart, full performance, though the character (written by Leslie Dixon from Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields) is something of a plastic symbol, a “winner” victim of the American system of high-stakes ambition. Always hungry for more, Eddie is like a sexed-up Bernie Madoff.
Neil Burger (The Illusionist) directed with fierce energy and braids the taut, flashy strands of plot. Sharply photographed by Jo Willems, the trippy devices include speed-zoom editing, computer graphics, an X ray of Eddie’s throat as he takes the first pill, etc. With the human bonus of Anna Friel’s excellent small turn as Eddie’s former wife, Limitless delivers on its go-for-broke premise.
Do we need another Jane Eyre? There was a 2006 mini-series, and 15 years ago brought Franco Zeffirelli’s version with Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt. Susannah York and George C. Scott did it on TV, and in 1943 there was Robert Stevenson’s edition, starring Joan Fontaine. In that one, Orson Welles was an emotional stormfront as Rochester. It’s too bad that Christian McKay doesn’t star in the new film of Charlotte Brontë’s story, since McKay is bold and English and was a bravura Orson in Me and Orson Welles.
Cary Fukunaga directed in the BBC/PBS tradition of perfect costumes, grand homes rich in ancestry, and dialogue such as, “On these distant horizons you will find all manner of men.” There is an attempt to be faithful to a classic novel that is also flamboyant melodrama (if you love Jane Eyre, you probably love soap opera). Fukunaga and adapter Moira Buffini are like grad students cramming for finals. They structure the story so that Jane’s dismal youth, her time at Rochester’s gloomy Thornfield Hall (actually Haddon Hall in Derbyshire), and the scenes when she finds uneasy solace from a young minister tend to jam and elbow each other rather clumsily.
Michael Fassbender broods with a haggard hauteur as Edward Rochester, the rich, glum squire with too much time on his hands and a Gothic skeleton in his closet. He sizes up Jane as his rescuer, and romantic suspense builds in coy increments as mean weather agitates their mood swings. With Judi Dench as a devoted housekeeper, Jamie Bell as the snippy minister, Sally Hawkins as a nasty piece of work, and little Romy Settbon Moore as the story’s French-speaking mascot, our attention is credibly assured.
The hard sell is Mia Wasikowska. Fine in Alice in Wonderland and The Kids Are All Right, Wasikowska is often simply unfathomable as plain-pretty Jane. She survives, without evident neurosis, a girlhood that might have caused psychosis. Primly fitted into tight, homely outfits, she could almost be starring in Little House on the Moors. Jane is such a totem of saintly, virginal endurance that her growing interest in Rochester comes off like a challenge project at a tough finishing school. The truth is, she’s a little dull.
Battle: Los Angeles
Maybe Hollywood has a death wish for Santa Monica. It slid into the sea in 2012 and almost melted in Volcano. Now the beach community is ravaged by alien invaders in Battle: Los Angeles. Most of the filming was not in L.A. but LA (Louisiana), though trashing New Orleans would be too painfully redundant even for this demolition derby. As Santa Monica burns, a Marines platoon under veteran sergeant Mike Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) opts to escape hell by driving away in an orange city bus. Maybe the aliens are stupid (maybe they worked on this script, “directed” by Jonathan Liebesman).
The aliens are squishy beneath their metal armor, and in the squirmiest scene, a captured alien is probed and pulled apart while still alive. Humans die mostly like road kill, though a heroic civilian grabs a gun and becomes an honorary Marine, setting the example for his kid who is, we surmise, a future Marine. Nantz not only ties the boy’s shoelaces but calls him “the bravest Marine I’ve ever seen,” not long after delivering a speech saluting the young Marines he lost in past (Iraq?) action. The kid scenes echo the worst bits of The Green Berets, John Wayne’s oafish endorsement of our engagement in Vietnam.
This is a combat video game (“They’re going down like bowling pins!”) wrapped in a Marine Corps recruiting poster. Troops at Camp Pendleton helped train the actors, though surely little training was needed by Michelle Rodriguez, the Girlfight and Avatar icon of kick-butt feminism. We get the jarhead mantras “Hoorah” and “Retreat? Hell!” A mention of Wayne (1907–1979) triggers a nod to modern demographics when a recruit says, “Who the hell is John Wayne?” At least in Wayne’s era, “action film” had not become synonymous with “shameless.”