Saturday, August 27, 2011
Director: Neil Burger
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Abbie Cornish, Anna Friel, Johnny Whitworth, Robert John Burke, T.V. Carpio, Andrew Howard
Running Time: 105 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
For some reason, when Limitless was released into theaters I kept confusing it with The Adjustment Bureau. There's no logical explanation for this other than that they both came out around the same time and boasted high concept premises that could easily be botched. The latter turned out to be a really intelligent thriller that delivered on its promise, at least until its final few misguided minutes. Limitless isn't nearly as intelligent or serious-minded, and at many points it's spectacularly dumb, but boy is it fun. It's possible that some day a serious think piece will be crafted from a premise this though-provoking, but until then, we have Limitless and I can't say it doesn't at least scratch the surface of its potential. Entertainingly awful in the best way possible, it features a schizophrenic lead performance, an audio book's worth of voice-over narration, seizure-inducing visuals and enough wacky hair styles for its star to make Nic Cage jealous, but at some point I just gave up and went with it. After a really rough start, about halfway through the film wisely embraces its own silliness and becomes a wild ride.
Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a struggling writer living New York City in danger of failing to meet the deadline for his latest novel which he hasn't even begun working on. Broke, living in a crappy apartment and recently dumped by longtime girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) he runs into ex-brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth) who hooks him up with a new untested drug called NZT. The pill allows humans to access 100% of their brain power as opposed to the normal 20% and the results for Eddie are staggering and immediate. He not only finishes his novel, but uses his new mental prowess to conquer the stock market, attracting the attention of influential power broker Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), who gets Eddie used to living in the fast lane for a change. Despite the drug having turned his life around, he must still contend with the deadly side effects of withdrawal, assassins closing in on his stash and a Russian mafia thug (Andrew Howard) he can't seem to shake. Eddie's a new man, but it comes at a high price.
The opening half hour of this film is so silly I was worried any chance at this story (based on Alan Glynn's 2001 novel, The Dark Fields) even being reasonably satisfying was compromised right out of the gate, but its silliness ends up being an indispensable asset. Though it is unintentionally hilarious seeing Cooper as a struggling writer (looking more like a homeless hippie) and director Neil Burger's attempts to visually depict the results of the drug on Eddie's psyche via some crazy CGI and mind-numbing special effects is bizarre, once this thing gets going it doesn't stop. The real fun doesn't even necessarily begin when Eddie takes the pill, but rather when he gets off it and must deal with the withdrawal consequences The narrative doesn't exactly travel in the direction you think it will, but that's a relief. I half-expected a mysterious corporation (much like in The Adjustment Bureau) or some kind of pharmaceutical giant to be after him for the medication, culminating in a preachy life lesson on the evils of drug abuse and how we should accept ourselves for who we are. Delightfully though, director Neil Burger instead decides to just remake Crank, only replacing adrenaline with NZT. That approach shouldn't have worked but it does mainly because of Cooper's performance and Burger's commitment to just go all out with special effects, narration, camera angles, fast forwards and quick cuts that convey just how out there this whole thing is. That's a risky proposition but for a story this absurd it strangely seems to fit perfectly, making this feel like a superhero movie meets Wall Street, an ironic comparison considering Shia LeBouf was originally attached to star. We lucked out with Cooper.
If anything, this solidifies Cooper as capable of carrying a movie and likely on his way to becoming a huge star, even if the jury's still out on the full scope of his abilities as an actor. Here he's playing the kind of charismatic action star part Tom Cruise would have taken if this were made in the eighties or early nineties and he does just as efficient a job. If he strains credibility early on as a failed novelist it's of little consequence since he's a natural at playing a slick, cocky businessman and is borderline scary as an addict who desperately needs another fix. Sad as it may be, this is Robert De Niro's best supporting role in ages. Of course, the part's still a joke, but at least this time he seems in on it, squinting and grimacing as only De Niro can. He plays it completely straight, which makes some of the scenes and dialogue exchanges between he and Eddie (especially when he's off his meds) that much more ridiculous. Abbie Cornish's role as the girlfriend isn't as thankless as you'd imagine either, a credit to her and a script that actually gets her involved, culminating in one of the film's better action sequences at a skating rink.
They'll likely be tons of complaints that the film's true potential doesn't fully materialize on screen, and while I appreciate the point, this works well enough for what it is and poses some interesting questions to be pondered when the movie concludes, though not during it. But the biggest relief just may be its refusal to deliver a morality tale or some cliched message that "money doesn't equal happiness" or "power corrupts." Its goal is simply to entertain and if there's any lesson here you could argue it's the exact opposite. The film doesn't just bask in its own arrogant cynicism, but actively promotes it, at least earning points for its brutal honesty. It almost seems to imply we might need a pill like this or we're destined to be failures incapable of ascending to the great heights of Bradley Cooper, and then shames us into feeling guilty about it. That took guts. In pointing the finger at us and our materialistic obsessions, Limitless retains just the right amount of satirical darkness to counter-balance what's otherwise a far funnier, more enjoyable mainstream action movie than expected.