Limitless (United States, 2011)March 17, 2011
After toiling on television for years, Bradley Cooper graduated to the big screen with a number of credits that placed him in supporting and/or "best friend" roles. With the runaway success of The Hangover, Cooper leapfrogged from "character actor" to "marquee name," paving the way for movies like Limitless, in which he (not co-star Robert DeNiro) is the main draw. In a part that in no way recalls his work in The Hangover, Cooper is credible. The problem with the movie isn't the acting, it's the story, which falls considerably short of the promise of its premise. For a plot about super-intelligent people, the screenplay is surprisingly dumb.
Ironically, for Limitless to work, it is necessary for the viewer to reduce brain functioning. Even a little rudimentary thought about what's transpiring on screen will torpedo the movie's effectiveness, because basic logic doesn't apply. The holes aren't simply large enough to drive a truck through; they're so huge they could gobble up a planet. Neil Burger brings a flashy visual style to the movie, with some dazzling CGI-enhanced tracking shots that may cause monetary, strobe-like disorientation. At times, Limitless comes across like a synthesis of Wall Street and a superhero movie on acid. It may not be smart but it's never boring.
Cooper plays Eddie Morra, an unsuccessful writer living in a Manhattan dump and struggling with writer's block. His girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish), has left him and his attempts to begin his science fiction novel result in him sitting around his apartment doing nothing. One day, a chance encounter with his ex-brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth), Vernon, bears unexpected dividends when Vernon offers Eddie a sample drug called NZT. Supposedly "safe" and FDA-approved, it enhances brain power, allowing the person to use 100% of his mind. The one pill dramatically alters Eddie's life. Not only does it motivate him, but it allows him to start his novel and reason out things that would baffle most ordinary humans. When the effects of the drug wear off, he craves more, so he goes back to Vernon - and that's when he becomes entangled in a criminal mesh that includes gangsters, lawyers, and high rollers.
The problem with making a film about the actions of a really smart person (at one point, Eddie indicates his IQ is four digits) is that the writers typically aren't intelligent enough to replicate the actions and abilities of a super-genius in a credible way and the result is inconsistent (often maddeningly so) and silly. Whether this is a problem with the source material (Alan Glynn's novel, The Dark Fields) or whether it's an artifact of the screenplay is irrelevant - the movie is unable to effectively present a protagonist who's as brilliant as we are told he is. In the end, Limitless degenerates into a mundane thriller with shootings, knifings, and fist-fights. The climax is a disappointment and the epilogue feels like a cheat.
It's nice to see Robert DeNiro playing it straight. Aside from Stone, he has spent too much time in recent years slumming. Here, he's a hard-nosed high-stakes business man and this gives him an opportunity to deliver a monologue about earning one's place in the world. It's a snappy piece of writing that one might mistake as having been penned by Quentin Tarantino and DeNiro delivers it as only DeNiro can. The veteran actor doesn't have a lot to do in Limitless, but his presence is welcome. In fact, aside from Cooper, no one is provided with much of a role. Abbie Cornish is a generic love interest (with one flashy moment featuring a little girl on ice skates) and Andrew Howard is a thug with a Russian accent.
At one point, I thought Limitless was going to turn into a cautionary tale about ingesting untested drugs, but that element of the plot is dropped when it's no longer convenient. Still, despite a heavy load of contrivances and inconsistencies, Bradley Cooper's likability and the fast, kinetic pace will keep most viewers involved, and it may not occur to the majority how many potentially rich storylines are left unmined due to either time constraints or laziness. Limitless is eye candy with a little jolt of adrenaline for those who want to give their brains a 105-minute rest.
Limitless (United States, 2011)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Leslie Dixon, based on the novel The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn
Cinematography: Jo Willems
Music: Paul Leonard-Morgan, Nico Muhly