starring Billy Crudup, Donald Sutherland, Monica Potter, Jeremy Sisto
screenplay by Robert Towne and Kenny Moore
directed by Robert Towne
by Bill Chambers Does Robert Towne deserve his reputation as a Hollywood Great? (I'm not playing Devil's Advocate here.) After all, Roman Polanski is responsible for Chinatown's brilliant ending (Towne, its screenwriter, bowed out when Polanski opted to alter his comparatively bittersweet finale); Warren Beatty extensively reshaped his screenplay for Shampoo; Towne caved to studio pressure and destroyed the climax of his sophomore feature as writer-director, Tequila Sunrise; and it took him several years to pen the misfire Love Affair.
As for his new film, Without Limits, it's stuffed with terrific soliloquies that serve as bristling evidence of Towne's poetic ear, perhaps explaining why he's still in demand as one of the highest-paid script doctors around. Billy Crudup (Sleepers) stars as Steve Prefontaine, the U.S. Olympic hopeful whose life was cut tragically short in a car wreck. "Pre"'s coach was Nike founder Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland), whose philosophy--if you can find meaning in something like winning a race, you just might find meaning in life--fuelled his star runner to prove that his uniquely short, stocky build was not an impediment to going fast.
Front-running was his trademark: Pre exerted all the energy he could throughout a race; Without Limits, which arrives in theatres a year and a half after Steve James's lower-budgeted, vérité-style Prefontaine, suggests he was psychologically incapable of pacing himself. Bowerman and Pre's relationship is the heart and soul of the piece. They are men with a common goal: success. Bowerman's approach is always the more scientific--he spends whole afternoons crafting special shoes (using his wife's waffle iron) with the aim of improving the aerodynamics of their wearer. Yet the two men are ultimately so alike that there's often a battle to have the last word, and any time a conflict arises between mentor and mentored here, Towne's writing is as insightful, methodical, and dynamic as a chess game.
Leaning into the character's doom, Crudup's performance justifies his current It Boy status. At first, his high-pitched voice, extreme assuredness, and Ron Kovic mustache are a tad disconcerting, evocative as they are not so much of the real Pre as of Towne's affection for the film's producer (and frequent collaborator) Tom Cruise, once slated to star. There's something profoundly intimate about Crudup's scenes with on-screen paramour Monica Potter, and he more than holds his own against Sutherland, though the opposite may finally be truer. Sutherland emerges from something of a decade-long slump before our very eyes as Without Limits progresses. I was convinced utterly of Bowerman and Pre's relationship during a late-film quarrel outside a bar, a calculated Oscar-clip moment that both actors emerge from with dignity.
Unfortunately, even with that climactic highlight, Without Limits is a deflating balloon of a movie. The trouble with making Pre's story into a mainstream biopic is that the filmmakers are forced to impose a conventional structure on a life that was all about non-conformity, to the very bitter end. Pre's untimely death was little more than cosmic cruelty, a flip of the channel, which is why we're forced to endure a syrupy eulogy--the kind where the movie's title is spoken as dialogue--from a teary Bowerman that imposes completion on Pre's unfinished journey. Towne is not a terribly sentimental filmmaker (or, at least, he's never given off much warmth), and these final moments, with their slow-motion, double-exposed images, cutaways to a glassy-eyed Potter, and John Williams crescendoes, are overcooked. The sequence is textbook directing at its blandest, one of the few times Towne loses confidence in the abilities of his exceptional cast to say what needs to be said.
I like that the characters in Without Limits believe in something within themselves, beyond ego and into the territory of religious fervour. I sighed relief at the lack of dramatic embellishments in the first two-thirds of the film. But the fascinating, uncinematic--or, rather, unformulaic (boy meets track coach, boy meets girl, boy loses big race, boy loses girl)--tale of Pre concludes as though it were standard M.O.W. fare in Towne's hands. I wish I could write that he is "without limits" as a director, but it is Towne's flair for the obvious that prevents this picture from going that extra mile. Originally published: September 11, 1998.