One of my favorite films is “That Thing You Do,” written and directed by Tom Hanks. I am thrilled that he has gone back behind the camera again for “Larry Crowne,” scheduled to open this summer, co-written with Nia Vardalos of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” in which he appears with his “Charlie Wilson’s War” co-star Julia Roberts. And the cast includes Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad,” Taraji P. Henson of “The Karate Kid” and “Date Night,” Pam Grier of “Jackie Brown” and Mr. Sulu himself, George Takei. Can’t wait!
Most of us feel that there must be some way for us to unleash the best version of ourselves. Whole sections of bookstores, whole shelves of vitamins, dozens of infomercials, motivational speakers, and guides to personal growth, self-actualization, and personal and professional success are evidence of the powerful human sense that there must be some trick to getting us out of our own way. So, if someone offered you a pill that would do all that for you, you’d probably be tempted to give it a try.
That’s what happens to Eddie (Bradley Cooper) in this stylish thriller. He’s a guy who feels like a loser. He has yet to write a single word of the book he is supposed to be working on. His girlfriend (Abbie Cornish as Lindy) has dumped him. He lives in a dive and he is out of money and out of ideas. He has just about lost touch entirely with any notion of himself as a person in control, a person on track, a person with a sense of possibility. He runs into his former brother-in-law, who says he has moved on from selling street drugs to selling legal pharmaceuticals and offers him something new and special, a small, circular, clear little performance-enhancing pill. Eddie swallows it.
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It hits him like a combination of Ritalin, steroids, speed, and super-powerful ginkgo biloba. It hits him like spinach hits Popeye, if it grew his brain instead of his muscles. Suddenly, everything makes sense. Eddie has focus, confidence, motivation, clarity. The scales drop from his eyes. Everything makes sense to him, information, numbers, people. He can effortlessly access any information he has ever skimmed over, even if he was unaware of it at the time. He finishes writing his book in four days and it is a masterpiece. He can learn new languages almost instantly. He gets a haircut, cleans up his apartment, starts to work out. He gets Lindy back. He starts investing and the money pours in. A billionaire (Robert De Niro) makes him an offer.
But there’s a problem. Eddie becomes dependent on the drug. He keeps upping his dose and he starts to have black-outs. His ex-wife gives him a shattering glimpse of what it means to go cold turkey. The dealer has been murdered. Eddie has a stash, but no way to get more. Other people know about the drug and they desperately want him to get it for them. Can he out-think other out-thinkers?
Cooper has become one of Hollywood’s most appealing leading men and this movie, which he co-produced, plays to his strengths. If he is not exactly convincing as the pony-tailed mess at the beginning, he has all of the genuine movie star gloss to make the newer, better Eddie look, as Dolly used to sing, better than a body has a right to. Director Neil Burger keeps the movie amped up, making us feel a little wired as we watch. It’s fun to get inside the head of someone working at 500 percent capacity, seeing how he thinks through his options, trying to maintain control internally and externally, balancing the swings between extraordinary powers and terrifying dependence and vulnerability.
Even those of average intelligence to spot the problems Eddie overlooks — or the obvious solution it takes him the entire running time to figure out. But it is still a lot of stylish fun to see Bradley Cooper inhabit the fantasy — and deal with the fallout.
That’s not Lincoln as in the rail-splitting President. It’s Lincoln as in car. Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) is a lawyer whose office is in his car, the better to maneuver between his court appearances and his clients. He’s a criminal defense attorney, and this is a nicely gritty portrayal of the criminal justice system. That means he has no illusions, either about his clients or about what we like to call the justice system. He has no illusions about happily ever after, either. He is mostly-amicably divorced from a prosecutor (the always-welcome Marisa Tomei), and shares custody of their daughter.
Mick rides around from court to court and client to client, driven by a former client working off his legal fees. He gets paid up front. He’s not above giving a kickback to a bail bondsman for a referral or giving a little sweetener to a clerk to get his case pushed to the head of the list. He’s used to dealing with, well, dealers and other low-lifes. So when he gets a chance to represent a murder suspect who is not only wealthy but claims to be innocent, this is a chance for Mick to do well by justice and himself.
But things are never so simple, and Mickey must find a way to both use and bend the rules after it appears that this case has complications that extend all the way back to a plea bargain he made on behalf of another murder suspect in a case with some disturbingly similar evidence.
McConaughey is well cast as Mick. He has the surface, slightly seedy charm of a trial lawyer. He easily conveys the struggle of someone with essential decency but a gift for shortcuts that makes him money but also makes him feel like he has to try harder. His scenes with Tomei bring out a warmth and essential decency that keeps us on Mick’s side as he tries to do the right thing.
Director Greg Mottola (“Superbad,” “Adventureland”) is an expert at mixing raunch and sweetness. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz”) are experts at making funny but knowing and affectionate tributes to movie genres. Together, they’ve made an uneven but amiable road trip sci-fi comedy about an alien with sly references to everything from “Star Trek” and “2001” to “Alien” and “Battlestar Gallactica.” And, of course, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “ET.”
It begins, as all pop-culture-obsessed stories should, at Comic-Con, the annual San Diego fanboy extravaganza. Two English fans, Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) begin their long-awaited first visit to America, starting at Comic-Con and continuing on a road trip to Area 51, Roswell, and other legendary UFO locations. They happily put an “Alien On Board” bumper sticker on their camper. But that doesn’t mean they are prepared to actually have a close encounter of their own.
And certainly Paul (stoner-ish voice of Seth Rogan) is not at all what they had in mind. He immediately reassures them that the business about the probes is just an urban legend. He’s been on Earth for quite a while, so he has had a chance not just to absorb a lot of American culture but to influence it as well (Steven Spielberg has a clever cameo). He thought he was a guest, but has learned he was a prisoner. Now a fed (Jason Bateman) and a pair of cops (“SNL’s” Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) are after him and Graeme and Clive are in for an adventure beyond their wildest dreams, which were already pretty wild (as shown in their comic book).
They meet a variety of people along the way, including Jane Lynch as a sympathetic waitress and Kristin Wiig as Ruth, a fundamentalist Christian with a bad eye who wears a creationist t-shirt showing Jesus shooting Darwin. Paul and the Brits cause her to have massive cognitive dissonance, questioning everything she has ever believed. Wiig manages to make Ruth’s child-like delight in catching up on a lifetime of unused swearwords is sweetly innocent. Mottola keeps things going briskly with some surprising cameos as more people join the chase, including Ruth’s gun-totin’, Bible-thumpin’ father, some angry biker types, a woman whose life was transformed by a close encounter with Paul when he first landed, and the head of the shady government agency trying to capture Paul before he makes it to the mother ship. The crudity, drug humor, and attempted satire about fundamentalism fall flat most of the time, but the affectionate understanding of fanboys and their obsessions, the unpretentious sweetness of the friendship and budding romance, and a couple of plot surprises make this something to phone home about.