– Summary –
Director : Neil Burger
Year Of Release : 2011
Principal Cast : Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro, Abbie Cornish, Anna Friel, Johnny Whitworth, Andrew Howard.
Approx Running Time : 105 Minutes
Synopsis: When he takes a drug designed to maximize the use of the human brain, Eddie Morra decides to use his new-found powers of intellect for his personal gain. Working the stock market and gaining the attention of some powerful people, Eddie must escape his vaguely shady past in order to ensure his incredibly bright future – the choices he makes are not without consequences.
What we think : Uneven plotting only barely unbalances this tense semi-sci-fi thriller, with Bradley Cooper more than holding his own in the leading role opposite DeNiro. The film doesn’t dwell on intricacies all that much, instead opting for visual panache and a breathless, almost hyperbolic trajectory of excitement, cool and hell yeah. Limitless is a frivolity at best, but it’s great to watch and enjoy for the simple premise it gives us.
What if? “What if…?” is probably the single greatest question ever posed in all of human history – it’s been used as a catalyst for war, exploration, discovery and grief, loss and pain. Science fiction, hell, even good fiction generally, is a great tool for posing such hypothetical questions to us all, and Limitless asks yet another interesting question: what if we could access the entirety of our brains. I don’t mean the functions we use for breathing, moving and other reflexive functions, no, I’m talking about using the entirety of our capacity for intellectual, imaginative thought – what if instead of using the “1 third” of our current capacity we could access all of it? Makes for a salivating hypothesis, doesn’t it? While Limitless never really broaches the full potential of this question (which, if you’ve seen the film, is an irony in itself), this fantasy writ large comes into being thanks to director Neil Burger and uber-hunk Bradley Cooper.
Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a down-and-out writer struggling to pay the rent or even write a word of his impending novel. He’s broke, his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) has broken up with him, and he’s suffering a severe case of writers block. After a chance meeting with his ex-brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), Eddie is handed a golden opportunity in the form of a new kind of drug – one that expands the human brain to its maximum potential. Eddie takes the drug, and sits down to write the first 40 pages of his novel without a pause. His mind is clear, he’s thinking straight, and he’s able to pull knowledge from places he didn’t even know he had. But then, the next morning, the drug wears off – and he needs more. Returning to Vernon’s place, he finds the guy murdered, obviously somebody trying to locate the drugs. Ransacking Vernon’s apartment, Eddie locates the massive stash of pills, and things start to look up for him as he takes his new-found mental ability for a spin. Eddie starts to play the stock market, using money from a violent money lender (Andrew Howard), to make a small fortune, before his antics are eventually noticed by boys at the Big End of Town. He’s approached by mega-wealthy businessman Carl Van Loon (Robert DeNiro), a horribly monikered individual who recognizes talent when he sees it, and tries to exploit it for his own gain. Happy to oblige as long as he makes money, Eddie soon learns that with such power and responsibility, shadows of his past he’d prefer to keep secret start to become bigger problems. The money lender discovers the secret of Eddie’s drug, and threatens to kill Eddie unless he provides him with more. Add to that the side effects of not continuing to take the drug, or taking too much, and you have an edgy, tense Eddie threatening to undo all his good work.
What would you do if you could remember everything, and calculate things several dozen steps ahead of everyone else? You’d almost be a god, right? Limitless explores this eventuality through the concept scripted by Mrs Doubtfire/Pay It Forward writer Leslie Dixon. Dixon’s tried to give the story an emotional core, with a downtrodden-but-morally-upright Eddie Morra being given an opportunity to become a better man through admittedly illicit means. Eddie’s not a bad guy, but his moral compass certainly sways sideways at times during this film, a film which essentially plays upon the motivation of greed and money as the reward for success. The concepts at play here are quite apropos considering the way the world is heading as I write this. Naturally, as soon as Eddie figures out that he can perform complex calculations and thought processes at speed, he wants to make money, and does what any aspiring wealth-hound would do: play the stock market. Where Eddie is different from you or I, however, is the premise that he’s only doing it long enough to set himself up for something bigger. Mayor. Senator. President. You name it, with this power, the sky is the limit. Altruistic intent aside, Eddie must cross some dark boundaries in order to achieve his own personal nirvana, and it’s a fascinating journey for us to watch.
Limitless is a morality fable, I think, at least that’s how it seemed to me. The abuse of limitless power, and the consequences of that. You’d be forgiven for wondering exactly why I’m waxing philosophical here, at least more than normal, but isn’t there a part of you that hasn’t pondered what you would do if you had some kind of superpower? Of course you have. Unlike Superman, say, Eddie is merely a human, and his power is derived from an experimental drug, which indicates a finite-ness to his journey since drug manufacture can be stopped, ending his run of good fortune. He does what any good boy would do: he beds gorgeous women, flaunts his ability in front of the movers-and-shakers and generally becomes a bit of a show-pony. It’s only after a critical misstep that he realizes that he must put all his efforts into ensuring – at any cost – his future. It’s a tantalizing prospect, and one I don’t think Limitless quite has the momentum for. Neil Burger’s film has some excellent stuff going on inside it, even if sometimes that stuff tends to be a little ponderous and ham-fisted in its execution. The script is wildly uneven in tone, switching from the cheeky smarm of Cooper’s playboy caricature to the brutal, frantic comedown Eddie who must literally fight tooth and nail to survive personal attacks by violent gangsters, and this is all mixed up with a business-y deal with DeNiro, and a semi-romantic theme with Abbie Cornish as Lindy. The film deviates from a more pure science fiction aspect to an action/thriller one with a kind of blunt force trauma style, as if Burger has to make it obvious what we’re supposed to be thinking and feeling along the way, instead of allowing the film to flow and simmer along naturally. It’s not a major issue, not in the least, but it does keep this film from being exceptionally good.
Cooper’s a solid enough actor, and he plays his part here with style and strength – we believe he’s Eddie, and we are drawn on his journey from the lows to the highs with adequate requirement. We want Eddie to succeed, seemingly regardless of the personal cost, which is perhaps a frightening thing to be thinking when he’s having the shit kicked out of him by the gangsters. At what point do we sacrifice personal morals and ethics for the sake of success? To me, this is the most basic question Limitless asks. Cooper aside, DeNiro is better than he’s been in ages with what is essentially an extended cameo part, playing the mega wealthy Carl with typical efficiency of character. Cooper stands right next to DeNiro, an actor of incredible standing in the Hollywood community, and keeps up with him in the performance stakes here, even though the occasional bug-eyed routine does stop Cooper’s charm from really hitting the home run he deserves. I’ve always enjoyed Coopers work, and he’s again quite solid here, almost Mel Gibson-esque with his emotive passion and enthusiasm for the role. Abbie Cornish is window dressing, playing the on-again, off-again girlfriend part with just enough nuance to make her only slightly less cardboard than she was in Sucker Punch. Bit roles to Johnny Whitworth and TV Carpio as Eddie’s ex brother in law and wife respectively are lip service only, and the requisite secondary characters (such as the villainous gangsters) round out the roster of this film with bland, directionless people.
Limitless is directed quite well by Burger, with a sense of stylish verve and brevity of excess accompanying the films major set-pieces – a gangster brawl and shoot-out in Eddie’s apartment towards the end of the film is genuinely suspenseful, although a chase between Lindy and one of the films secondary henchman-villain types through Central Park is less so – for some reason, it was during this moment that I had a flashback to the old Roger Ramjet cartoons, where he pops a proton pill, and the line in the theme tune “when Ramjet takes a Proton Pill the crooks begin to worry”…. I had to laugh when Lindy herself takes a pill to escape pursuit, because I suddenly had an image of her turning into Roger Ramjet. There’s some questionable moral themes about illicit drugs throughout Limitless that actually make a person pause and ask the question: is this film seriously trying to justify the taking of drugs to get ahead? Anyway, back to the direction by Burger. The film has one quite obvious thematic device it uses to differentiate between Eddie’s enhanced state and his normal state – as Enhanced Eddie, the color palette of the film becomes exceptionally bright and highly contrasted, while in Eddie’s normal drug-free state, the image is washed out and almost lifeless, a little like Eddie himself. I’d almost say this was a cool way of indicating what state Eddie was in, if it wasn’t so obvious.
That said, it’s hard to fault a film which is so obvious in its intent that most of the above doesn’t really matter. Hell, it’s a piece of philosophical dialogue being manipulated into a piece of escapist entertainment, and on that level, Limitless succeeds. It’s hardly the brain teaser I’m making it out to be, but it is quite a decent thriller if you’re prepared to divorce yourself from the obvious drug related connotations. Cooper’s eminently watchable, he’s ably backed up by DeNiro, and the plot twists and turns make for a breathless thrill-ride across and through New York City. Limitless doesn’t quite know when it’s hit its own limits, but that doesn’t stop it being any less fun.