MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

WILMINGTON ON DVDs: Co-Picks of the Week: New. Potiche, Limitless



  Potiche (Three Stars)
France, Francois Ozon, 2010 (Music Box)

A few words about Potiche: Catherine Deneuve is still beautiful at 67. Gerard Depardieu, still tremendous at 62, has grown as immense as Brando (in girth as well as talent.) Both still hold the screen casually and with real brilliance, though Depardieu, if he keeps this up, may soon burst the boundaries of even an IMAX screen.

That’s the good and mixed news about director and co-writer Francois Ozon’s Potiche, in which Deneuve and Depardieu play ex-lovers who have aged into later-life roles: Deneuve as Mme. Pujol, the deeply intelligent but criminally wasted “potiche” (or trophy wife) of a wealthy factory owner, and Depardieu as M. Babin, the same city‘s Communist mayor, parliamentary representative and pro-labor firebrand.

 Now, during a contentious strike, they find themselves on opposite political sides, and then similar ones (when she takes over the factory, in her husband‘s illness), and then opposed again. Meanwhile, the irascible factory owner Pujol, behaves very badly. He is played, very well, by a third longtime French cinema icon, Fabrice Luchini, 60 (The Girl from Monaco, Uranus).

The bad news, I suppose is that the play Ozon is adapting — by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy — seems to me not very good (at least if Ozon‘s adaptation is faithful): a little arch, smug and artificial, contrived too obviously, embellished too predictably, wrapped up too neatly. Cute all the same, it’s a feminist parable that could use a bit less Marx and Chomsky and a bit more Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin.

In the end though, I don’t think it matters. Movies can be works of art. (This one isn’t.) But they can also be, in a way, fantasy bistros where we meet and re-meet people we love to watch. Ozon (8 Women, Swimming Pool), one of France‘s most prolific auteurs, loves fine actors, and he seems to do his best to make them comfortable and happy and inspired — in this case not just the formidable trio above, but Karin Viard as Pujol’s feisty mistress, Judith Godreche and Jeremie Renier as his discontent children, Sergi Lopez as a Spanish routier, and many others.

Another word about Ozon: A very good director, yes. But, if another movie feminist fable this week (Hanna) struck me as somewhat correctly “politically incorrect,” this one strikes me as somewhat incorrectly “correct.” In any case, the resolution, more political than romantic, was only a mixed pleasure, whether it was correct or incorrect, or neither.

A word about Luchini: He can do self-absorbed, pompous egotists as well now as when I first saw him in 1970 in Eric Rohmer‘s Claire‘s Knee. Better, maybe. And here, of course, he’s playing that sacred cow of conservatives, a “job creator.” Merde!

 A word about Depardieu. He should really find a hole in his legendarily busy schedule and go on a diet. By now he is out-Raimuing Raimu, out-Laughtoning Laughton, out- Wellesing Welles. I’m not quibbling about his looks, and I certainly prefer a Raimu or a Laughton or a Welles — or a Depardieu — to the skinny dullards and phonies often foisted on us by the movies. But, to be blunt, we want Depardieu to still be around years from now, to keep filling his busy schedule — and with films, instead of banquets.

 Now: Deneuve. A confession. For three years, at college, I had five celebrity posters on my walls, along with my prints of Pieter Breugel’s “The Harvesters,” El Greco‘s “View of Toledo” and Van Gogh‘s “Starry Night.” The posters were of four of my heroes: Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Ray Charles, and Steve McQueen. And one great crush: Catherine Deneuve.

 If you disagree with my review of Potiche, you should remember that you’re talking about a woman I love.

(In French, with English subtitles.)

“Limitless” (Three Stars)
U.S.: Neil Burger, 2011 (20th Century Fox)
Limitless makes drama out of brain power and heroes out of geniuses, and maybe that’s something more of our movies should try. Directed by Neil Burger (of The Illusionist) , it’s a gaudy science fiction thriller with an intriguing subject. It’s about increasing your intelligence with a wonder drug, and about the ways that artificially enhanced brain power can enhance your life, and it’s also about the ways a wonder-drug become addictive and start to ruin you as well.
The film is shot with a lot of pizzazz and visual style by Burger, and well-acted by a cast that includes Bradley Cooper (of The Hangover), Robert De Niro (of The Godfather 2), Abbie Cornish (of Bright Star) and Anna Friel (of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). It’s an exciting movie, even though the script (by Leslie Dixon, adapting the novel “The Dark Fields” by Alan Glynn) has some dubious spots and too-convenient plotting, and even though the show isn’t quite as inventive or imaginative as those other recent sci-fi neo-noirs (sci-noirs?), Inception and Source Code.
But Limitless is almost as snazzy a thrill-ride, and it’s an interesting try at something smarter than usual: a flashy thriller that turns wish fulfillment into nightmare and vice versa. I liked it pretty much all the way through (with reservations), then disliked intensely what seemed the phony tack-on of an ending in the last five minutes. But I liked Limitless better again when I saw the DVD, which includes, among the extras, a much better “alternative ending,” which I assume is what Burger and Dixon originally wanted.
Science fiction is one literary genre that depends on ideas, as much as on characters, view-of-life, story and style, and the ideas in Limitless are provocative, if sometimes disappointingly developed. The central character is Eddie Morra (Cooper), an attractive but somewhat shaggy, up-against-it writer in desperate straits, who’s just lost his better-connected girlfriend Lindy (Cornish) and has serious job trouble — unable to meet a deadline on a novel for which he hasn’t written word one. Eddie starts taking the drug, an experimental pill called NZT, when he gets a freebie from his ex-brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), who also used to be a dealer.
That’s how the story begins. But it’s a flashback and we first see Eddie, who narrates the picture, standing on a ledge at a fancy Manhattan condo terrace at night, seemingly about to jump, while someone unfriendly-sounding tries to batter down his door. His narration then takes us back a little to show Eddie in the thick of that busted-deadline, lost-girlfriend fix, getting the NZT from Vernon — a drug that supposedly makes you five times smarter than you were before, by letting you access the 80% of your brain power that you supposedly don’t use. (I don’t know about you, but I find the idea of that unused 80% comforting.) Eddie swallows the pill and soon he becomes both incredibly smart and in major peril — with Vernon murdered in his apartment, apparently by other folks connected with NZT, and some killer-thugs hot on Eddie’s trail.
The rest of this unusually fast-paced movie — it sometimes plays like Mirage or Three Days of the Condor on speed — shows us how this extra edge suddenly fills Eddie’s life with sex and money and huge financial success and danger and subway muggings and murders he may have committed in a blackout, and pretty, pretty Abbie Cornish who loved Eddie once and may love him again, and a sadistic Russian loan shark named Gennady (Andrew Howard) threatening to skin him alive, and botched meetings with the one of the richest, meanest, maybe most powerful men in America (De Niro as Carl Van Loon) — and about how it ultimately all leaves you standing on that ledge on that condo terrace and looking straight down to your death dozens of floors below.
Actually, all of this suggests a cocaine allegory, or a fantasy of addiction or steroid use. But cocaine certainly: the drug that made Los Angeles famous, the drug of the Hollywood ‘70s (when De Niro was making movies like Taxi Driver and Mean Streets and The Godfather 2) . And since the audience surrogate of Limitless is Bradley Cooper, the likable seducer of The Hangover, this is also a movie about success in the 2000s, with corrupt Wall Street speculators and greed-crazed politicians bleeding the country dry, the stock market rising and crashing, and a looks-uber-alles pop culture turning us into glib phonies and glib phony-watchers. Cooper as Eddie, the frazzled-writer-turned-Uber mensch of Limitless, will narrate the whole damned thing to us, while standing on that ledge and listening to thugs break down his door: and he’ll retain our interest even when the plot becomes over-stretched, because he’s a pro — as are Burger and Dixon and all the tech people.
NZT, the superdrug that makes people smarter, is the movie’s main gimmick. And though I’ve seen much smarter guys that Eddie — unplugged, or not — NZT does make him a snappier dresser (which, for a lot of corporate types, is a sign of I.Q.). It gives him new language skills (instant French and later instant Chinese), new musical ability, and makes him overall a racier, swifter guy who talks a little faster. NZT’s most visible manifestations: We sometimes see multiple Eddies in a shot, some bathed in golden light, the movie races him fast-motion around Manhattan, and Burger often seemingly zooms or shoots the camera back or forward, up or down, like a video game gone berserk.
Limitless is not always well-written (it’s sometimes full of holes, actually), but it’s nearly always well-acted, and it’s sometimes smashingly directed. Dixon is the competent, not always adventurous scenarist who wrote Outrageous Fortune, Mrs. Doubtfire, Pay It Forward and the Ben Stiller remake of Neil Simon’s The Heartbreak Kid, and though she’s a pro who knows how to hitch a ride with the zeitgeist and push a story along, she doesn’t always push it in interesting directions.
Burger however, gives Limitless lots of visual punch and style. He directed The Illusionist — not the great recent French feature cartoon, but the very good 2006 period thriller-romance about magic acts, with Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti — as well as the goodhearted Iraq vet drama The Lucky Ones and the provocative JFK thriller, Interview with the Assassin. That’s not a bad resume, and together he and Dixon and the actors make the movie seem a bit smarter than it really is. And it is also this movie’s outrageous fortune though to have (maybe thanks to producer Dixon) an excellent production designer (Patrizia Von Brandenstein of Amadeus), and cinematographer (Jo Willems of Hard Candy).
There are problems with NZT though, that the script never really finesses. (Maybe Glynn’s book, which was called The Dark Fields, did.) Who’s running the labs? Who’s behind all this and what do they plan to do? How did an ex-coke dealer like Vernon get so involved anyway? If NZT is being developed by some legitimate (or illegitimate) company, how come word hasn’t leaked out on one of the big news stories of the century? And when it’s ready for market, at $800 a pill, will NZT only be available to the already rich, dooming the lower and middle classes to scraping by on nothing but 20% brain power? Or if the price drops, or the government intervenes with NZT-care, and everybody gets it, will we suddenly be in a world of universally quintupled I. Q.s, and then more quintupled quintuples as evolution progresses and chromosomes alter?
Or is this just a typical movie paranoid fantasy where the only NZT customers who count are Eddie and a few other Lucky Ones?
I’m not blaming Bradley Cooper for any box-office-induced glitches, as some have. (Jealousy maybe). The glib stud of The Hangover does a good job as more of a schmo, a good-looking guy who’s probably used his looks to get ahead (Maybe that’s how Eddie got that unlikely novel advance), but now is on the verge of a crackup, maybe because he’s always talked and/or screwed a better game than he can really play. Cooper holds his own with De Niro and Cornish and the others, and he even plays generously with a scene-sealing supporting actor who manages to out-sexy him: Whitworth, as NZT dealer Vernon. Cooper won’t take a scene from actors like De Niro or Cornish, but he plays attentively to them, and helps set them up, and that generosity makes him a good leading man.
Here, Cooper easily suggests all the various stages of his role. First: a sloppy, dilatory, desperate writer who’s gotten a big novel advance and hasn’t written word one. (It would have been more believable if Eddie were a ghostwriter being paid to write the book for somebody else, some lying celebrity “author“, for example) Then: He’s the sudden super-brain who popped the pills, and, in short order, wrote the book (in four days), learned several languages, made millions on Wall Street, and became a tabloid headline. Then: He’s the man on the run pursued by both loan sharksky Gennady and the NZT crowd, desperately trying to get another supply, as he begins losing that precious 80%. Then: He’s the usual sort of action hero battling the usual sort of villains in a snazzy condo in the usual sort of thriller. And finally….Well, we’ll leave the “finally“ for SPOILER ALERT time.
De Niro, meanwhile, is very, very good as a venal, impatient, deceptively polished financier, Van Loon (same last name incidentally, as the once-famous popular historian Henrik Van Loon), who takes an interest in Eddie when he starts making millions. I liked De Niro here, as I almost always do, and I would have liked to have seen more of him, as I also almost always do — even though one or two critics of Limitless have demanded less of him, perhaps because they’re ageist smart-asses. De Niro though supplies exactly what the role needs: tremendous presence, irony, buried sneakiness, full-of-himself entitlement and genteel brutality. His last scene with Cooper is perfectly judged and executed. (And it’s even better in the Limitless DVD‘s alternative ending ). Why? Maybe because he’s a smart old guy who knows the score — even without something like NZT.
What I disliked about the ending of the theatrical version of Limitless, was that it was basically a happy ending: Eddie gets what he wants, including the girl, and he‘s even on the road to political glory — which Limitless suggests is a smart-step up from high finance and, below that, writing. I don’t think he deserves all that, in the terms of the story — and maybe he‘s getting it just because somebody with clout figures that’s what the audience wants. The alternative ending, in which it can still go either way, fits my taste; an even darker ending would have fit it even more. With this type of story, it’s better to play it noir.
By the way, whatever happened to ginkgo?
Extras: Theatrical and Unrated versions; Alternative ending (very important); Commentary by Burger; Featurette; Trailer.
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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon