Director : Neil Burger
Screenplay : Leslie Dixon (based on the novel The Dark Fields by Alan Flynn)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Bradley Cooper (Eddie Morra), Abbie Cornish (Lindy), Robert De Niro (Carl Van Loon), Andrew Howard (Gennady), Anna Friel (Melissa), Johnny Whitworth (Vernon), Tomas Arana (Man in Tan Coat), Robert John Burke (Pierce), Darren Goldstein (Kevin Doyle), Ned Eisenberg (Morris Brandt), T.V. Carpio (Valerie), Richard Bekins (Hank Atwood), Patricia Kalember (Mrs. Atwood), Cindy Katz (Marla Sutton), Brian A. Wilson (Detective)
Although it has long since been discredited by neuroscience and functional imaging techniques, the old adage that we only use a small percentage of our brains (the number generally ranges from 10 to 20%) has had an impressive staying power in our cultural consciousness for close to a century now, probably because it promises an eternally open door to a better future (if we could just harness all that unused power!). Limitless, a slick new thriller based on the 2001 debut novel by Alan Flynn, takes this myth and runs with it by suggesting that a drug could be manufactured that would unlock all that unused brain potential and turn anyone who takes it into an immediate super-genius. Of course, just as Icarus learned that flying too close to the sun might burn you, the film’s protagonist, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), has some hard lessons to learn, although Limitless, a stylish Hollywood product through and through, could hardly be called a real cautionary tale.
When we first meet Eddie, he is a scruffy, aspiring writer living in a dumpy apartment in New York City. Full of grandiose ideas that he can’t quite articulate and a publishing contract for a sci-fi novel that he can’t get started on, Eddie personifies wasted potential, which is probably why his long-suffering girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) finally gets fed up and returns his apartment keys. His luck turns that very day, though, when he runs into Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), his former brother-in-law who used to deal drugs, but is now involved in much bigger pharmaceutical developments, namely NZT, a neuro-enhancing designer drug that promises amazing dividends. When Eddie takes one of Vernon’s little clear pills, he finds that it completely changes his experience of the world.
Not only is he more aware, focused, and motivated, but he is instantly able to recall every experience he has ever had, whether it be casually flipping through a book 12 years earlier or watching a Bruce Lee movie. All of his sensory experiences, stored deep in the recesses of his brain, are suddenly accessible. It is as if a medieval scholar suddenly had access to Google.With his newfound intellect, Eddie sets to work bettering his life--financially, anyway. He finds that his ability to absorb massive amounts of information and determine patterns is particularly useful in the stock market, and soon his brokerage account is in the millions. This catches the eye of the wealthy and the powerful, particularly Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), a billionaire financier who is one the cusp of the largest corporate merger in history and wants to employ Eddie’s brain in the process.
Even though Eddie financially enriches himself, gets back together with Lindy, and seems to have everything going his way, there are a few kinks in the system, most notably Gennady (Andrew Howard), a Russian loan shark from whom he borrowed money to invest on Wall Street and now wants more than just the loan repayment. Eddie also discovers that increased doses of NZT lead to blackouts, and he finds that he may be implicated in murdering a woman he barely remembers being with. And, to top it all off, NZT is addictive and there are serious physical and mental ramifications for those who stop using it. Oh, and he’s also being stalked by a mysterious man (Tomas Arana) who can’t have anything but harmful intentions.
Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, The Lucky Ones) and cinematographer Jo Willems (30 Days of Night) use the film’s emphasis on mental acceleration as an excuse to crank up the visual volume as much as possible, giving us rapid first-person tracking shots that race around the city like a cab driver on speed, as well as various visualizations of Eddie’s mind at work, some of which are more effective than others (when we see him starting to crank out his novel, do we really need to see random CGI letters falling all around him to get the idea?). The screenplay by adaptation expert Leslie Dixon (Hairspray, The Thomas Crown Affair) is a generally tight affair, breathlessly moving us from scene to scene, which encourages us to keep looking forward, rather than backward, where we might notice a few of the plot holes and unresolved questions. The story also provides a few genuinely tense moments, particularly a scene near the end when Eddie is in a particularly dangerous situation and needs a fix of brainpower that he can only get by literally drinking another character’s NZT-laced blood as it pools on the floor.
As Eddie, Bradley Cooper (who also coproduced the film) makes for an appealing protagonist, even when his big brain starts to give him, well, a big head. Cooper has played a wide range of characters, from irredeemable jerks (Wedding Crashers), to ordinary geeks (Alias), to nice-guy heartthrobs (All About Steve), so it’s not surprising that he is able to slide so easily among his character’s different iterations, most of which are marked primarily by the state of his hair and wardrobe. And, even when he’s being selfish, it’s hard to blame him for using his brain power to improve his own life, although it is interesting (and perhaps a bit disconcerting) to note that he never at any point considers trying to cure cancer or balance the federal budget. In this regard, Limitless reflects its protagonist’s chemically enhanced navel-gazing while encouraging us to do the same, and one wishes that the film had been more daring in its exploration of what such a situation might entail, questioning rather than reveling in the flashy surfaces of wealth and power.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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