Limitless (2011) / Thriller-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for drug use, violence, disturbing images, sexuality and language
Running time: 105 min.
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, Robert De Niro, Andrew Howard, Anna Friel, Johnny Whitworth
Director: Neil Burger
Screenplay: Leslie Dixon (based on the novel, "The Dark Fields", by Alan Glynn)
Review published June 26, 2011
Bradley Cooper (Failure to Launch, Wedding Crashers) plays (and narrates the story of) Edward 'Eddie' Morra, a struggling would-be author in New York City whose writers block gets unblocked when he runs into an old acquaintance, his former brother-in-law (Whitworth, 3:10 to Yuma), who gives him a mysterious pill, a new untested designer drug called NZT, that allows the brain to unleash its fullest potential, After taking the pill, he thinks clearly, has no memory recall issues, and finds himself rejuvenated in terms of energy and desire to challenge himself, both mentally and physically. Eddie immediately takes the time to learn new languages in a flash, write the book he could only but dream of, try for a fortune in the stock market, and woo and bed the hottest women with his ability to read them in an instant.
However, his supply line is compromised when his acquaintance ends up murdered, and after Edward steals the hidden stash some bad guys are keen to get their hands on, he realizes his new wonder drug is not only going to run out, but those looking for it are very tenacious and deadly. But there are positive sides as well, when his financial successes gain the interest of wealthy and powerful businessman named Carl Van Loon (De Niro, Little Fockers), but the side effects of the drug also means Edward is going to have to keep it together long enough to figure out how to keep his run of success going, or figure out a way to get out of the game while he's ahead.
Directed by Neil Burger (The Lucky Ones, The Illusionist), Limitless posits a society that has to wrangle moral and ethical issues when performance-enhancing drugs are introduced, not in the world of sports, but in the world of the intellectual pursuits -- business, literature, the arts. As morality tales go, Limitless is always watchable, even if overbearing at times in its approach, with interesting conflicts that challenge more than in your typical modern-day thriller. It's not an intelligent satire so much as a conventionally glossy exploration; one could see this as a more esoteric premise in Alan Glynn's original novel from 2001 that had been revised to accommodate a more commercial structure as more people had their turn. Burger provides the visual music video-style, techno-thumping energy, constantly interjecting alternative points of view. quick-cut montages, and slick camera work to keep the frenetic vibe in tune with the drug-fueled nature of the story at its heart.
Cooper doesn't ignite the screen with a powerhouse performance, but he is tuned-in enough to watch and his eyes intense enough to give that amped look the role requires when necessary. De Niro lends the movie some gravitas, though he isn't in the film much, and, really, his role isn't meaty enough to justify his appearance save to put another marquis name on the poster. Same with Abbie Cornish (Candy, Sucker Punch), to a lesser extent, in a role that isn't very nuanced, as Edward's ex who leaves him because he isn't living up to his potential pre-NZT. There is a secondary plot involving a Russian gangster (Howard, Revolver) that adds virtually nothing to the overall piece except to give it a deadly conflict that is neither warranted nor necessary. Had the story stuck to its ethical and moral explorations, in addition to the downside of addiction to something with so much upside, this could have been a much more resonant film.
However, there aren't enough character touches or moments of emotion that feel like they reside underneath the story, such that, it entertains without ever truly engaging the audience to feel anything more than the minimum necessary for the moment. It's a story arc that has its build-up, its climax and epilogue, but the grit and gristle of the piece has been supplanted by sex and sizzle without much meaning in their place. Eddie isn't a human so much as a conduit for a plot, and at the end, we feel like we've been titillated enough to justify the time spent, but never anything more than that to suggest it has impacted our lives in any meaningful way. This is especially problematic when this straightforward morality tale tries to offer up some twists at the end, which ring hollow because the film trades in its thematic resonance in order to give us Eddie's chance at redemption. But Edward Morra was never given to us as a complete, three-dimensional character, so we feel as if we aren't given the ending the story deserves.
©2011 Vince Leo