Produced by Studio Canal
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenplay by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Produced and distributed by Universal Pictures
Directed and written by George Nolfi, adapted from “Adjustment Team,” a story by Philip K. Dick
Produced and distributed by Relativity Media
Directed by Neil Burger
Screenplay by Leslie Dixon
Three recent American films are redolent of Hollywood’s past. They’re inhabited by attractive, competent actors, feature intricately, sometimes illogically plotted narratives, and have little purpose beyond entertaining their audiences. As such, they each exhibit a pleasing modesty of scale and theme.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s Unknown, the least interesting of the three, stars Liam Neeson as Martin Harris, a university botanist who’s attending a biotech conference in Berlin with his wife. Upon arriving at the conference hotel, he discovers he’s left his briefcase behind at the airport. Leaving his wife to check in, he hails a cab to go back and retrieve it. But things go seriously wrong when his driver (Diane Kruger) swerves off a bridge. He bumps his head and wakes four days later suffering from old Hollywood’s favorite malady: amnesia. Actually, it’s a highly selective amnesia, as we discover in the third act. What’s more, he seems to be contagious. His wife, played by the cute but remarkably bland January Jones, seems to have caught it as well. She doesn’t recognize her hubby when he returns. In what may be a fit of absentmindedness, she’s replaced him with Aidan Quinn.
Having lost his passport, Neeson is hard put to assert claim on his identity, especially with Quinn wearing a conference ID tag bearing his name. What’s going on here? If you don’t guess in the first 20 minutes, don’t feel bad. The answer turns out to be so implausible that calling it a MacGuffin would insult the master of plot contrivances, Alfred Hitchcock. You will have no trouble, however, anticipating that Miss Kruger will come to Neeson’s rescue. Why waste a cabbie this beautiful? Speaking of Hitchcock, Miss Kruger plays a downscale version of Ingrid Bergman, whose timely efforts in the master’s Spellbound improbably cured Gregory Peck’s amnesia and helped him beat a murder rap to boot. All it took were the services of a kindly psychiatrist played by the aged Michael Chekov. Kruger follows Bergman’s blueprint, enlisting the services of the kindly Bruno Ganz, once a Stasi agent and now an aged pro bono detective. Part of the fun of the proceedings is that the solution to Unknown’s mystery makes Spellbound’s look like documentary realism.
The Adjustment Bureau puts cinematic tradition to more diverting uses. Scriptwriter and first-time director George Nolfi has reworked Hollywood’s idea of angelology by way of Philip K. Dick. He’s fused Dick’s paranoid fantasy “Adjustment Team” with the star-crossed-lovers premise that Hollywood used to roll out three or four times a year. Rising political star David Norris (Matt Damon, playing his standard aging Tom Sawyer) unexpectedly loses his run for the Senate when a paper goes public with a college photo showing him mooning some dignitaries. (Talk about plot contrivances!) To prepare his concession speech, he repairs to a hotel men’s room where he encounters Elise (Emily Blunt). She’s been hiding in one of the stalls after crashing a wedding. (Happens all the time in New York City.) She’s brash, sweet, and brutally honest in her assessment of his speech. She cheerfully suggests he try a little honesty rather than hewing to his advisors’ poll-tested politico speak. Then, after giving him a long, meaningful kiss, she takes a powder worthy of Cinderella, leaving not so much as a slipper behind. Smitten, David takes her advice. He throws away his prepared speech and levels with his audience, thus making himself a shoo-in for the next election.
This cinches the deal. Romance is in the air. Whatever it takes, he’s going to find his runaway muse. But romance thrives on obstacles, and they obligingly show up as a team of handsomely suited men in fedoras. They work for the Adjustment Bureau, the agency responsible for keeping people on their prescribed paths. And who is the Prescriber? The Chairman, of course. When David asks, he’s told that, yes, the agents have sometimes been known as angels. It follows as day doth night that the Chairman is . . . but no one says. If you’re interested, however, look up Elise’s name. (It means “consecrated to God.”) But let that go. Hollywood-style supernaturalism doesn’t bear close scrutiny.
The Chairman has scripted David to become president, which may explain why he’s always idolized John F. Kennedy, Hollywood’s favorite Commander in Chief. Despite all we’ve learned about this incompetent rascal, Hollywood keeps their devotional flame burning. Well, he was undeniably cinematic. Still, I long for a screen politician who aspires to be another Dwight Eisenhower. Anyway, it seems that if David marries Elise he won’t become president. His devotion to her will overshadow his Kennedyesque ambitions. This goes a long way toward explaining why Kennedy never took marital fidelity seriously. It would have cramped his style politically, not to mention amorously.
So the agent-angels, headed by Richardson (John Slattery) and Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie), plan to nip the romantic bud before it has a chance to bloom. But Mitchell falls asleep on the job, allowing David to uncover the cosmic plot.
The rest of the film is taken up with David and Elise dodging the adjusters. Nolfi establishes a light, playful tone from the beginning so we know that, despite the barriers and misunderstandings thrown in the lovers’ way, their last scene is no more in doubt than, say, the conclusion Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea enjoy in 1943’s The More the Merrier.
The part of the film I enjoyed most involves Elise and David fleeing the adjusters through Manhattan. According to the film’s conceit, the adjusters’ fedoras equip them with teleportation powers. They can use any door they please to short-circuit spatial limitations. Open a door on the 16th floor of an office building, and they step into the basement garage, a park, a ferry landing, or even Brooklyn, for heaven’s sake. When a sympathetic angel gives David one of these supernatural hats, we go with him on a journey stopping at the New York Public Library’s Rose Main Reading Room, Battery Park, the Statue of Liberty, Red Hook, and my favorite, the old Metropolitan Life Insurance building at 1 Madison Avenue, where I once toiled in obscurity. This last location, with its massive exterior and towering Art Deco lobby, makes an apposite setting for a tale of individuals at the mercy of forces beyond their ken.
Now I must address a narrative inconsistency. How is it that, in a film revering JFK, a fedora becomes so preternaturally useful? Kennedy has been widely recognized as the president who quashed fedora wearing. He made a practice of going hatless to convey his youthful vigor and almost single-handedly destroyed the hat industry. Look at any photo of a crowded urban street scene from the 50’s or earlier: It’s fedoras on parade. By 1965, the hats had disappeared. I don’t know where Nolfi got his hat conceit. It’s not in the Dick story. Maybe, despite his JFK fascination, he has a longing for a time when men dressed well and behaved responsibly. I’ve always taken fedoras—homburgs as well—as emblems of masculine competence. With any luck, this film will revive their popularity.
Neil Burger’s Limitless also owes a debt to Hollywood’s past. It boasts a plot the industry established in its infancy. First, take an incompetent schmo who is roundly disparaged by all who know him. Second, have him unexpectedly discover inner resources that put those of his peers to shame. Then, throw him into a headlong adventure and watch the fireworks! Consider Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924) and The General (1926).
As failed novelist Eddie Morra, Bradley Cooper isn’t exactly Buster Keaton—there could only be one stoneface—but he has traces of Keaton’s trademark befuddled savoir faire. He plays a man who seems destined to leaden defeat, yet rises gracefully to every occasion.
With his New York editor demanding he return the advance she’d given him, and his girlfriend dumping him on grounds of his general ineptitude, Eddie runs into his ex-brother-in-law outside his Bowery apartment. He has a fix for his woes: NZT, an untested pharmaceutical. So Eddie tries it. Presto! He has a four-digit IQ. Instead of the proverbial ten percent of his brain, his thoughts are firing across all synapses, and he abruptly changes everything. He turns his slovenly apartment into a modest showplace, learns to play piano flawlessly, masters several foreign languages, and finishes his novel in four days. Soon, he moves on to high finance, making millions in the stock market. This attracts the attention of Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), a fabulously wealthy financier. Finding Eddie’s analysis of his interests both accurate and profitable, Van Loon hires him pronto. There’s just no stopping this 100-percent brainiac. Or is there? When he runs out of NZT temporarily, he falters, and Van Loon begins to suspect Eddie is a flash in the pan. Then, belatedly, Eddie discovers there are other NZT users, and they have a way of lapsing into fugue states, some funereally so. He’s also acquired a Russian creditor with a penchant for skinning uncooperative debtors alive. Did I mention the police are after Eddie also? You might begin to wonder how Mr. 1,000 IQ made so many idiotic choices. Further, as a literary man, surely he knows what opium did to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey, and what cocaine nearly did to Sigmund Freud. You might wonder why he didn’t foresee NZT’s predictable consequences.
But you don’t. The film caroms through Manhattan’s street grid with such abandon that this question barely registers as you watch. Understandable. While viewing North by Northwest, you don’t wonder why Cary Grant thinks he and Eva Marie Saint can climb down Mt. Rushmore’s presidential brows wearing loafers and high heels. You just go with the fun as you do here.
This said, I have one reservation. As Eddie’s risks mount and the inevitable bears down, the plot trips you up with a mammoth inconsistency that puts paid to its narrative logic and gives the film a troubling subtext. By the conclusion, one question is difficult to suppress: Is Burger for or against better living through chemistry?