Behind this forgettable trifle are some very talented people, all punching below their weight when they’re not just calling it in. The screenplay is by Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”), Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”), and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”), based on the 2005 French film, “Anthony Zimmer.” Two of the biggest stars on the planet, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp do their best to put some sizzle in this would-be romantic thriller, but they are both poorly used and have no chemistry whatsoever. Venice is pretty, though.
Jolie is the veddy proper Elise Clifton-Ward, whose role in this film is somewhere between femme fatale (drawing the poor schlub who happens across her path into a world of intrigue and peril) and Girl from Ipanema — she spends a lot of time walking slowly while those she passes say, “Ahhhhhhh.”
Elise receives a note from Alexander Pearce, the man she loves and has not seen for two years, asking her to find a man on the train who resembles him to use as a decoy and distract the various Interpol teams that are trying to track him down. Enter the shlub, a math teacher from Wisconsin so (apparently) incapable of dishonesty that his very name is Frank. And yet, we see him tell a lie very early on. It’s a small one, perhaps understandable, but still….
Elise invites him to spend the night in her lavish hotel suite (on the sofa) and kisses him on the balcony, thus drawing the fire, and the attention, of Interpol and of someone even more bent on tracking Pearce down, the man he stole from. It’s a nice set-up, but the execution depends on three things that never happen: a witty script, a spark between the leading characters, and an understanding of tone. The script sags. Jolie and Depp are both poorly cast (she may be more of a serene and elegant mother earth in her real life these days but on screen she only comes alive when she is aggressive and a little wicked and Depp can do just about anything but act like an ordinary guy). And von Donnersmarck has no sense of humor or lightness to make the sillier aspects of the story endearing instead of annoying. This is yet another example of an American remake of a French film that just misses the fun, the romance, and the point.
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.