Director: Neil Burger
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro
Review: 3.5 stars (of five)
Limitless is a very entertaining movie limited only by either time constraints or screenwriter imagination. It’s well-acted by the eminently likable Bradley Cooper and the briefly used but very effective Robert DeNiro, and the direction is slick, fresh and interesting.
The basic story: A struggling novelist who can’t get get a word on paper gets ahold of a drug that lets him use his brain to its full capacity. Not only does he dash off a brilliant novel in a few days, but he masters languages overnight and manages to make unprecedented killings as a day trader. Unfortunately, there are repercussions. There are murders, there are shadowy pursuers, there’s drug withdrawal and the fact that supplies are limited. The movie has a lot going on, and not all of it is explored adequately.
The film is best in its first half, as Bradley Cooper gamely narrates the transformation of his life from soul-sucking failure (shot with a washed-out color palate familiar to anyone who’s watched a gritty urban drama in the last two decades) to a candy-colored, hyper-real success in which every moment brings a new brainstorm and a new success. Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) makes Cooper’s drug-enhanced world visually appealing with camera tricks and color design, and screenwriter Leslie Dixon (adapting Alan Glyn’s novel, “The Dark Fields”) lets us indulge in fantasy. Who hasn’t felt as beaten down as Cooper—he’s failing in his career, can’t make rent, and is being dumped by his girlfriend—and who hasn’t wanted to suddenly ride on top of the world?
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
On the downside, the newly begeniused Cooper doesn’t always act like a genius. My first thought when he gets a supply of a super-brain drug that he knows he can never replace is, “Instead of becoming a master of high finance, how about becoming a master of pharmacology so you don’t have to worry about the drug running out?” Eventually Cooper gets around to dealing with this issue, but it just seems like he’s not going about things in the right order. And when he can make millions in a few days of stock trading, why’s it so important that he beat the odds and impress billionaire Robert DeNiro for a chance at “the big time”?
As the movie descends into the dark consequences of Cooper’s pharmacological adventuring, it becomes a bit more scattered. Dixon is an able screenwriter (credits include Mrs. Doubtfire, The Thomas Crowne Affair and Pay It Forward), but her script seems to lack focus. We eventually figure out why an unnamed villain is pursuing Cooper, but we never know quite what the whole story is. Our hero is briefly framed (we assume) for a crime, which is never resolved, and the big action climax has some pretty preposterous elements. On the upside, this erratic storytelling makes the movie feel less predictable.
“Are You Talkin’ to Me?”
The ending of the film is a little dissatisfying because Cooper appears to pull a Get Out of Jail Free card out of nowhere—but his declarations on this point may be lies, in fairness. You can usually tell what a film is about by which problem is confronted last. In this film, it’s not the (barely present) romance, it’s not the issue of drug dependency or the questions of identity it raises, it’s not the forces of crime and greed trying to kill Cooper. In the end, he faces the established order, the force that represents the current power paradigm, in which it’s not drugs, but greed, ambition, talent, corruption and hard work that get you to the top and keep you there. Cooper begins the film as a loser who can’t make it in this world. In his final confrontation, he beats the world on his own terms, having done exactly what Robert DeNiro, earlier in the film, declares cannot be done: Skipping the hard work and vaulting to an unearned success. So in that sense, this film is a cheap power fantasy for the powerless, and on those terms, it’s an enjoyable one.