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Review: 'Lucy,' with Scarlett Johansson, is stupid, smart and awesome

Luc Besson's "Lucy," in which Scarlett Johansson gains increased control over her brain, is a film about smart and stupid but always enjoyable.

Scarlett Johansson can touch time in "Lucy." Credit: Jessica Fourde Scarlett Johansson can touch time in "Lucy."
Credit: Jessica Forde

'Lucy'
Director: Luc Besson
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

No one has ever accused Luc Besson of being smart. He is a smart businessman, who has created a cottage industry that endlessly upchucks Eurotrash junk like “The Transporter” and “Taken.” But the films themselves revel in stupidity. His latest, “Lucy,” is both smart and stupid. Here’s how it veers between intelligence and idiocy, or embodies both simultaneously:

Stupid: Scarlett Johansson plays the title character: a student in Taipei kidnapped by a fearsome, heartless gangster (“Oldboy”’s Choi Min-sik). She’s made a drug mule, but the package surgically installed inside her leaks, and the contents happen to be a radical drug that, if taken in large doses, gives her increasing command of her brain power. It buys into an old wives’ tale: that we only use around 10 percent of our brain, and if we used more who knows what would happen. This idea, like most old wives’ tales, has been loudly debunked, in fact by those who pointed out its inaccuracy when “Limitless” exploited the same idea three years ago.

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Smart: But one shouldn’t let a disproven notion get in the way of enjoyable cinema. The idea may not carry any water in the real world, but it's ripe for the movies. And Besson smartly goes in a wildly different direction than the amusingly amoral “Limitless,” in which Bradley Cooper’s character abused a similar drug, but used it to gain success, money and power. He was selfish. Lucy is selfless. At first she has super-clarity. Then she has super-brain power. (Besson adorably demonstrates this level of mental prowess by having her use two computers at once. Two!) This gives her a lust for knowledge, and she soon looks up a Sorbonne neurologist played by Morgan Freeman, who spends the film either lecturing a la his show “Through the Wormhole” or, after meeting the film’s star, staring in priceless, slackjawed befuddlement at the increasing insanity around him.

Scarlett Johansson becomes less and less human in "Lucy." Credit: Jessica Foude Scarlett Johansson becomes less and less human in "Lucy."
Credit: Jessica Forde

Stupid: She can also soon control all matter. She can change her hair, make baddies float or knock out a hallway of armed cops with a flick of her finger. This is arguably dumber than the notion that we only use a fraction of our brain power — that we could actually manipulate space and time with accelerated smarts. She goes beyond being a mere movie psychic into playing on Besson’s assumption that, if we all used 100 percent of our brains, we’d all be able to do whatever we wanted. Sounds like a mess.

Smart: But Besson runs with the idea without looking back. Lucy quickly loses interest in smacking around her enemies, because she does it without effort. And Besson smartly recognizes that a movie with an unstoppable, invulnerable hero should be something more than a dumb action movie. If “Lucy” is “Limitless,” it’s “Limitless” with more than a dash of “The Tree of Life,” and even a bit of “Under the Skin,” the movie where Johansson played an alien seductress.

Stupid: Besson still insists on dumb thrills. There’s a decent car chase that rips off “Ronin” by having Lucy — who’s never before driven — speeding confidently into oncoming traffic. And Choi’s villain — who, refreshingly, never speaks a line of English —pursues Lucy to Paris, where he insists he can gun her down. It’s not clear who’s being dumb: the bad guy, who thinks he can take out a superhuman, or Besson, who kept this subplot anyway.Throughout Besson overloads the film with goofy cutaways. When Lucy is kidnapped, there's a shot of a mouse going into a trap. There are montages about animals and humans having sex or being gorily born, shots of magicians sawing women in half. He's afraid we won't get the basic things he's saying.

"Oldboy" star Choi Min-sik (center) plays a fearsome, dumb gangster out to kill an invulnerable Scarlett Johansson in "Lucy." Credit: Jessica Foude "Oldboy" star Choi Min-sik (center) plays a fearsome, dumb gangster out to kill an invulnerable Scarlett Johansson in "Lucy."
Credit: Jessica Forde

Smart: But all of this has its charm, and again, it’s amazing this is also part “The Tree of Life” and “Under the Skin.” That last part is accidental; the actress had just come off “Under the Skin” when she shot “Lucy.” But it confirms that Johansson is right now peerless at playing inhuman. Lucy starts off all-too-human; Johansson’s panting, wide-eyed fear as she’s dragged off by armed and belligerent drug lords is palpable. As the percentage of her brain use increases — to 20 percent, to 30 percent, to 60 percent, and so on — she is forced to lose her fear, her love, all her human traits. It’s “Under the Skin” but in reverse, with Johansson eventually reciting her lines in a dry, affectless tone and moving her body like a robot with faint memories of once being a woman.

Smart-stupid: Johansson nails a scene when she’s on the precipice between human and super-human. She calls her mom as doctors, at gunpoint, open up her abdomen. She knows she’s losing the last vestiges of her humanity and personality, and seizes on the final feelings of melancholy to talk about her life. “I remember the taste your milk in my mouth,” she tells her mom.

Stupid-smart: That’s a silly line, delivered confidently by Johansson, and it’s also a sign this is a film by Luc Besson. Besson is unrepentantly European, which is to say his definition of good taste (such that such a thing exists for him) is different from that of Americans. In “The Professional,” Besson thought nothing of sketching a (platonic!) romance between an aging assassin (Jeno Reno) and a 12-year-old girl (Natalie Portman). Here, Lucy guns down a cabbie because he doesn’t speak English, and kills a patient so doctors can tend to her instead. Both scenes pull back a bit: the guy she shot can be heard screaming “Ow, my leg!” (though he’s off-screen, and she definitely didn’t shoot him in the leg) and the patient, she quickly deduced, would have died anyway.

True fusion!:These are the kinds of out-there offenses that you only get from someone like Besson.He imitates Hollywood but loses something in the translation. Therein lies some, but not all, of its unique power. "Lucy" is the special runt in the litter of summer sequels and detritus — a concentrated, 90-minute blast of over-the-top action and trippy scientific philosophy. It's nearly as focused as Lucy herself, but still prone to human error. A smarter person than Besson would have taken this in an even more fantastical direction, but there's something deeply amusing about the tidy way it ends —as though its final gag really was all there needed to be said about life, the universe and everything.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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