Review: Limitless (2011)

Running time: 107 min. Rating:PG-13 for thematic material involving a drug, violence including disturbing images, sexuality and language Director:  Neil BurgerWriters:  Leslie Dixon(screenplay), Alan Glynn(novel) Stars: Bradley Cooper, Anna Friel, Abbie Cornish, Robert De Niro

Mobster’s Rating:

Limitless, like the mind-altering drug of its story, is one wild ride.

Zipping along with jittery intensity and focused storytelling one minute, and then coasting down to a restless slog the next, Neil Burger’s film is both schizophrenic and surprisingly addictive. Here’s a story about a man whose IQ is propelled into quadruple digits and the screenplay itself refuses to be smart.  Fortunately, there’s enough zest and energy on the part of Burger and his star, Bradley Cooper, that Limitless ends up being a fun trip with little to no adverse side-effects.

So, how exactly does Ed Mora (Bradley Cooper), a loafing New Yorker with a wrecked bachelor pad and a hobo’s fashion sense climb the upper echelon of Wall Street’s power players? With the help of NZT, that’s how.  A mysterious designer drug that  reaches Ed via his ex brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth), NZT is a performance enhancer that tunes your mind to frequency 11; all of the collected information, intuition and ingenuity that’s been floating inside your cranium suddenly coalesces. The euphoria of NZT isn’t some chemically fabricated experience but the sublime rush of realizing your own full potential. ‘Be all you can be’ doesn’t become an impossible mandate, but a tantalizing preview of the drug’s power. Are there side effects? Sure.

There are many directions this story could go. Limitless opts for the thriller route with some sci-fi window dressing.  Screenwriter Leslie Dixon, adapting Alan Glynn’s novel ‘The Dark Fields’, sets Mora on a personal course that will bring he and his on-again /off-again girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) into the orbit of a wealthy power broker (Robert Deniro), a dangerous Russian thug (Andrew Howard) and a mysterious stranger (Tomas Arana) who seems to be offing anyone associated with NZT. These pitfalls and the re-emergence of Ed’s ex-wife Melissa (Anna Friel)–who knows something about the fallout from NZT–set up the structure of the film.

The fun of Limitless is watching Cooper navigate and solve the plot’s dangers with the aid of NZT; trying to sort out the tangled snarl he’s concocted while doing his best to temper the blackouts and mental ’skips’ that come with territory. Ultimately, it’s most fun to watch Mora’s non-enhanced self try to procure more of the drug so he can get out of a deadly situation. This is not unlike observing Superman looking for a phone-booth but constantly finding them occupied.

Cooper does a nuanced job of showing how one’s concept of moral rightness might change when all of your actions fly by in a drug-fueled blur.  He fine-tunes the smugness in an interesting way; you can smirk with confidence when you know you really are the smartest person in the room. His affability and self-deprecating bumbling make Eddie an interesting character who we don’t mind following, even through the lower-levels of his time off from NZT.

Cornish and DeNiro are mostly add-on thoughts glued to the script so that Eddie has a few people to play off of. DeNiro has really been phoning it in as of late (an exception made for Stone), but here he’s alive and formidable as a man whose every word is designed to let you know he’s superior. Cornish makes the most of her undercooked role, and gets to shine in an intense chase scene through the park, offering audiences a peek into what someone else’s response to NZT would look like. Friel’s role is inexplicable and strangely truncated, but she’s effective as a counterpoint to the drug’s promises of success.

As a headliner for this adventure, Neil Burger excels. One of Limitless’ best qualities is the way it calibrates its rhythms to match Mora’s shifting mental states. From the very first frame, Jo Willems’ kaleidoscopic, tunnel-vision cinematography prepares us for the viewpoint of an NZT user. When the come-down hits, so does Burger’s nimbleness with the narrative. Everything slows, and the audience is given a moment to ponder the situation and the implications of Mora’s actions. This would work splendidly if not for the fact that the script can’t actually handle the scrutiny. Limitless wants to be a smart movie about an even smarter guy, but in truth it’s very muddled, choppy and almost purposefully dim when it comes to logic.

Burger forms a partnership with his lead actor that recalls a similar collaboration with Edward Norton on his 2006 film, The Illusionist. Together, he and Cooper make Limitless a breezy and compelling ride. Unfortunately, Burger doesn’t have a final coda that can get him through. Since NZT is a performance enhancer and not a narcotic or psychotropic compound, there are implicit questions that arise about its’ usage. Ed isn’t just chasing a high; he wants to be a better man, for reasons both selfish and not. In a better movie, the audience would turn that question of ‘Would you?’ on themselves. Unfortunately,Limitless meets the boundaries of its ability in that last third, trading up consequence for contrivance.

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