Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Limitless (2011)

Limitless boasts the rebellious self-improvement spirit of Fight Club, ironically crossed with the “greed is good” monstrosity anthem of Wall Street. It’s a movie about changing perspective, about taking control of your life and achieving a 21st century enlightenment. Oh, and looking cool. It’s definitely about looking cool.

Insert the suave devil Bradley Cooper as Eddie Morra, a broken down writer devoid of cleanliness, ambition and, recently, his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish). Eddie’s bottomed out, which is why his chance run-in with an ex-brother-in-law is downright serendipitous. Ex-bro has a new designer drug he’s dieing to share, and pretty soon he’s just dieing, leaving a large stash behind for Eddie to find, enjoy, and abuse.

What’s the drug? A concoction of unexplained, essentially magical components that help you access the extra 90% of your brain scientists keep saying we don’t use. It’s a “make ya wicked smart” pill, and Eddie uses it to clean up his act, finish his book, get the girl and (because greed is good) dominate the brokerage game. He becomes the ultimate version of himself. But is this too much of a good thing?

Honestly, the movie isn’t sure. It looks like a sports car but drives like a moral lesson, until it veers off the road into a shady parking lot on the wrong side of town looking for a fight (club). Surprise! The film has a multiple personality disorder. It’s a PG-13 flick with R aspirations, and it goes places you probably aren’t expecting to see on this candy-coated tour.

Thankfully it manages to avoid a genre disorder. As absurd and ostentatious as Limitless often is, it remains an enjoyable and steady thriller.

Director Neil Burger (2006’s The Illusionist) brings a crisp and colorful visual style to this drug-induced rollercoaster ride, and keeps us barreling forward at a taut and engaging pace. He’s working for the firs time from a script by someone else – industry vet Leslie Dixon, who’s previously worked on everything from Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) to The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) to The Heartbreak Kid (2007). Dixon is himself working from a novel by Alan Glynn, and he builds an effective if narrow narrative vision out of it. We never really know why Eddie puts himself on this mission (he has an epiphany at a perfectly structured plot point, but never bothers to share it with us) or why, if he’s now so incredibly smart, he still manages to be so conveniently stupid or absent-minded.

Yes, Limitless hits a few logic speed bumps, but it hits them so fast we don’t have much time to worry about them before bracing ourselves for the next curve. For the first 60 minutes or so, this technique works. Ultimately we may realize this is a manipulated course. But we may also be too distracted by Cooper to care.

Cooper’s been a rising star for the better part of a decade (check out his similar performance on the short-lived but sly TV series Kitchen Confidential, available on Hulu). He’s poised to be the #1 Box Office champ twice this spring, with the Hangover sequel due out in May. But Limitless is his first headliner, his first shot as a bankable leading man, and he nails it. He pulls off charming and dangerous, sweet and snide. He stands toe-to-toe with Robert De Niro, and he more than holds his own. He’s the main reason this movie succeeds, and he’ll be the main reason future films do the same. He steps up, and given the subject matter, that feels entirely appropriate.

When you boil it all down, Neil Burger’s film is about power, control; about taking it for yourself, and not letting someone else (scary Easter European mobsters, spooky stalkers, addled druggies, Robert De Niro) take it from you. Limitless is messy, and occasionally inexplicable, but it consistently maintains its own anthem… even if it doesn’t always know why.

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