There's a wealth of material for filmmakers to pry out of the troubles that America has faced in the past decade. The depressed economy, the plight of the returning soldier, and the loss of American industry have all informed the plots of many of the best films written in the past couple years. In his second directorial effort, Out of the Furnace, filmmaker Scott Cooper attempts to turn the myriad of America’s most pressing issues into a story set in the backdrop of the country’s hard suffering Rust Belt, but he comes away with a merely competent dramatic thriller that clearly aspired to be something grander.
In the film, Christian Bale plays the hardworking and upstanding Russell Baze, an almost impossibly good-natured man who has worked in the local steel mill his entire life, and had planned, just like his ailing father, to do so until the day he died. But when the steel mill is scheduled to close, Baze's way of life as well as the town itself is crippled. Casey Affleck plays Russell's sensitive brother Rodney, whose tours in Iraq have left him emotionally eruptive and dissatisfied with his brother’s working man existence; Rodney would rather spend his time competing in underground fighting rings where he can still feel something. Rodney soon finds himself wrapped up in violent and reactionary crime ring that doesn't take kindly to strangers. It’s up to Russell to save his brother from the grips of the areas most terrifying criminals
Out of the Furnace is appealingly glum. Cooper finds beauty in the rolling hills and crumbling infrastructure of small town Pennsylvania, and the film fully embraces the derelict beauty of its settings, down to even the homes and the cars that the characters own. The film clearly prides itself on feeling authentic and it reaches its goals visually — at the very least.
The relationship between the brothers Baze also feels remarkably authentic. Both Bale and Affleck sell the relationship deftly, and have an almost tangible amount of on-screen chemistry that expresses their bond for each other in a way that no script could. This chemistry makes the scenes where Rodney has gone missing burn with terrific dramatic intensity.
There’s a quiet desperation in these people. Though they may be hopeful and happy in their set paths, there’s a feeling that they’re all walking along streets heading nowhere. America isn’t the land of opportunity anymore, not for the soldiers or the factory workers. The only thriving ones seem to be the criminals like Woody Harrelson’s Curtis Degroat, who is so overarchingly villainous that the only thing the character is missing is a dastardly moustache to twirl.
And this is the big issue with Out of the Furnace. While Harrelson’s performance is at times chilling, the script often dovetails Degroat into an overdone cartoon bad guy, and this weak characterization flows through a lot of the characters and seriously undermines a lot of the authenticity that the film believes itself to be built upon. There's a particularly groan-inducing scene where Degroat decries the human race in the gruffest voice he can muster. Woody’s Degroat character, and most of the others in the film, aren’t so much developed characters, but act more like clichéd archetypes in Cooper’s parable about a broken America. Degroat is simply the bad guy, and not characterized beyond that one-dimensional role in this story. Affleck’s wounded war veteran feels overwrought as well, with many of his scenes laying down the melodrama in thick sheets, particularly when he’s discussing the terrors he’s faced in the war oversees.
Out of the Furnace has a lot of things on its mind about the state of America’s small towns and working class heroes, but it doesn’t know the best way to express itself, and while some of it’s sentiments ring true others clank harshly like an off-note. The remarkable cast does its best to prop up a film that wants to tell a great American story, but it only manages to tell a fairly middling one.
It's not that Movie 43 is shocking or "edgy " or whatever any of the writers or directors would like to convince you. If you want to actually puke or cry or be shocked you can go to Rotten.com like the rest of us Internet miscreants. The Cinema of Transgression films by Nick Zedd and Richard Kern have more artistic value than Movie 43 and are generally more interesting. Which is saying a lot because Zedd's films can get pretty boring. You can only see Annie Sprinkle make out with a man who's listed as Ray the Burn Victim for so long... although I feel terrible for writing because everyone needs love. Sorry Ray.
Movie 43 has 12 directors and 17 writers credited with this anthology of shorts modeled according to producers Peter Farrelly and Charlie Wessler in the spirit of Kentucky Fried Movie. Surprisingly none of those writers or directors go by the name Alan Smithee. It's not even totally clear which were written and directed by whom; the production notes are "hilarious first hand [sic] accounts from those who were a part of and were witnesses to the creation of MOVIE 43."
Kate Winslet and Halle Berry and Richard Gere were tricked into participating which is supposed to make their "outrageous" shorts all the more titillating. One of the larger problems of Movie 43 is that it relies on this handful of mega-stars and on our reactions to them and their off-screen personas all in lieu of genuine comedy onscreen. Would it be funny if some schmuck on YouTube played a Steve Jobs-like character who didn't understand why his company's iBabe music player — which looks like a naked woman but has a coolant system with a fan between its legs — was mangling users? No it wouldn't. And it's definitely not any funnier because it's Richard Gere playing him.
What's most offensive about Movie 43 isn't the scatological humor but how shoddily the whole thing was put together. (To be honest I did nearly walk out during the Anna Faris/Chris Pratt short about her desire to be pooped on. I also nearly barfed during Salo. Because poop.) In quite a few of the shorts half of the actors' heads are cut out of frame. Their heads are literally cut off of the screen in a movie that was professionally filmed by accredited cinematographers. Now it could have been the theater projecting the film that was having the problem but that's not really my concern. My concern was mainly that a handful of paying customers (including myself) were sitting through a studio movie where the top of actors' heads aren't in frame.
The self-referential wraparound for the movie is embarrassing for everyone involved including the viewer. Dennis Quaid plays a disheveled crazy writer who holds a studio exec (Greg Kinnear) hostage until the exec agrees to buy his movie pitch. His pitch is the series of shorts which the exec obviously thinks is a terrible idea... because it is. This is like adding insult to injury because the creators know what they've made is crap. Even the studio exec that they themselves wrote thinks the premise of Movie 43 is crap and has to be held at gunpoint to bring the idea to his boss. This idea that you will have wasted 90 minutes of your life on — minutes you could have spent watching YouTube videos of people squeezing their own cysts or having botflies removed from their bodies or yes making out with burn victims.
Complain all you like about stodgy critics who have no sense of humor and don't get "the kids" today and all that but it seems that Peter Farrelly and the group of people who forced this towards theaters (with little to no help from most of the stars or writers or directors) are the ones who are completely out of touch. With anything. Including humor.'s>
Most drug movies glamorize the use and/or distribution of narcotics before telling the ugly truth about the addiction or jail time that follows and the shady figures that inhabit society’s underbelly. Taking characters from point A to point B and finally to their lowest point is a formulaic but effective storyline that shows how substance abuse destroys lives. It worked for Blow Scarface and The Basketball Diaries but in Limitless director Neil Burger ignores that successful blueprint and essentially says “Do drugs kids! They’ll help you! And don’t worry it’ll all work out in the end!”
Of course a more familiar narrative precedes this self-serving unorthodox conclusion and it could’ve worked if Burger navigated the story with more focus. The film begins when struggling novelist and all around slob Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) who has a permanent case of writer’s block runs into his drug-peddling-ex-brother-in-law in Manhattan (what are the odds?) This slimy fellow gives him an experimental pill called NZT that clears its users mind and helps them focus. When he ingests it his long-gestating novel is completed in a matter of hours and his grimy apartment is made-over to look like a room at the Ritz Carlton. The pace of the picture picks up quickly as Eddie climbs New York City’s social and corporate ladders acquiring wealth power women and the attention of greedy entrepreneurs ruthless gangsters and assassins who want the drug themselves.
The high-concept premise presented storytelling potential as expansive as the title suggests but Limitless is hampered by a series of discrepancies that render it silly and disjointed. Some of the smaller ones are relatively insignificant and won’t hinder the experience but others (such as the lethal effects of the drug which conveniently don’t apply to our protagonist) defy the internal logic that screenwriter Leslie Dixon sets up. It’s also hard to ignore how useless a handful of the sub-plots are. Abbie Cornish’s character starts out as motivation for Cooper’s but her relevance lessens as the stakes are raised and Eddie slips further into the worlds of finance and crime. The same can be said of the Russian gangster whose arc begins when he lends Eddie some capital for an investment and ends in a pulpy bloodbath. Burger leads you to believe that these side-stories will have greater impact on the bottom line but by the time the film wraps it becomes clear that they’ve collectively convoluted the plot.
It is however entirely possible that the filmmakers’ goal was to make a movie that mimics the incoherent mind-bending state that hallucinogens induce and in that sense Limitless works. Burger builds on that idea by visualizing the effects of NZT with unusual camera techniques including abrupt changes in color editing tricks that revisit the action in reverse (sort of) and a great time/spatial elapsing effect that literally pulls the viewer through Eddie’s lengthy drug coma. The dizzying display of surreal imagery is the films greatest gimmick designed to draw your attention away from its weaknesses.
At its core Limitless is about excess: excess of knowledge power money etc. and fittingly excess is one of its biggest problems. The filmmakers force too much upon their movie from unnecessary fight scenes to sexual encounters with metropolitan socialites that ironically water down its potency instead of giving it more edginess. Like any drug it starts out as something refreshing and stimulating but when you come down you’re stuck wondering where the last few hours went.