Odeon East Kilbride, 02.04.11
Limitless is the story of Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), a writer struggling for inspiration, who bumps into his ex-brother-in-law, Vernon (Johnny Whitworth) one day and is given a pill, which once taken allows him to access 100% of his brain capacity. He instantly becomes smarter, able to write his book in four days, recall lost memories and utilise math to earn millions on the stock market. But when he returns to Vernon for more of the pills, he finds him dead and soon finds himself in trouble with Russian money lenders, shady big business, wanted for murder by the police and dealing with addiction.
Limitless is directed by Neil Burger, who’s 2006 magician-thriller The Illusionist starring Ed Norton and Jessica Biel was a magical, stylish film, far better than the similarly magician themed film of the same year The Prestige, directed by Christopher Nolan. However it was the latter film that won more critical praise, awards, publicity and box office. His follow-up in 2008 was The Lucky Ones, which was largely ignored by everyone (it was never on general release in the UK, I haven’t seen it). So Limitless represents a return to the limelight and the widest release and biggest box office of his film career thus far. The stylistic touches that were present in The Illusionist are present, and to recreate the feeling one gets when taking the life changing pill, Burger throws everything at the screen. Wide angle lenses, computer enhanced tracking zoom shots, tricksy editing and colour grading, freeze frames and any number of other hyper kinetic visual effects land on-screen in a dizzying kaleidoscope. For the most part this works, and the contrast when Eddie is on a ‘downer’ emphasises the attraction of being on the wonder pill. Burger gives these scenes a cooler, grey, duller look and sticks to slower paced, unenhanced visuals.
The cast are all reasonably good. Bradley Cooper (also acting as Executive Producer) gets the chance to bring his natural charm and looks to a more serious role after the comedy of The Hangover (2009, Todd Phillips) and the dumb but enjoyable action of The A-Team (2010, Joe Carnahan). Abbie Cornish, as his girlfriend, Lindy, again shows promise, and one hopes more substantial roles lie ahead for her. Robert De Niro seems mildly engaged as Eddie’s boss, but while it’s better than seeing him floundering around in Little Fockers (2010, Paul Weitz), it highlights again how the “greatest actor of his generation” is now content to pick up bit parts and supporting roles that he can sleep walk through without stretching himself.
So far, so good, but unfortunately Limitless doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its parts, largely due to a flawed plot. Based on the novel The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn, the film displays a common one for films based on literature, namely that in cutting the novel down to less than two hours of screenplay, some logic seems to have got lost along the way. The chance meeting that introduces Eddie to the wonder pill is contrived to say the least. Down on his luck he bumps into his ex-brother-in-law, who he hasn’t seen in 9 years, as you would in New York, a city of almost 20 million people. In the space of one midday drink Vernon hands Eddie a pill, worth $800, for absolutely free, knowing that he is putting Eddie’s life in danger both from the drug (it has already ruined his sister’s life) and from the shady drug companies that will soon after murder Vernon in his apartment. Quickly moving on from this contrivance, moral objections combine with logical mis-steps to leave an uneasy, distasteful feeling to the film. Naturally, Eddie’s first act is to finish the book he has been struggling to work on. But he soon descends into the usual film (and ‘American dream’) clichés. So money becomes the major goal, accompanied by a nice haircut and shave, lots of sex and parties and some nice new clothes. In other words, little of substance. Near the end of the film we learn Eddie has designs on becoming a senator and eventually President of the United Sates. Is this to do some good and make a difference in the world, or does he merely wish to have the power and fame that comes with such a role would guarantee? One suspects the latter from everything that has gone in the film before. At no point does Eddie suggest that with his new-found powers he should, for example, end poverty and famine in Africa, or create a new fuel that would end the oil crisis and help bring peace to the Middle East. As usual with a Hollywood film, the view of the world is entirely US-centric. While these thoughts may have been expressed in the original source novel, they are entirely missing from the film.
The other major problem is the wonder pill itself. Becoming addicted to the pill, Eddie soon starts to experience the downside – vomiting, loss of short-term memory, withdrawal. He meets his ex-wife (Anna Friel) and sees the waste of a life she has become as an ex-addict, and learns of the several people who have died from using. Should we take this drug as a parable of other recreational drugs and the danger they pose in real life? If so, the rest of the film becomes problematic. In no time at all Eddie hires a pharmacist to master the chemical formula and give him a guaranteed supply of the pill (again, if the drug makes him so smart, why he doesn’t simply do this himself is left unexplained). Smart enough, one presumes, to manage his dependence on the drug, he continues to use until he gets to a position of power and richness where he no longer needs the drug and is able to wean himself off the drug. In the end, Eddie is smart, rich, successful, back with Lindy, and only improved from his experience with the dangerous drug. I’m not sure what the moral of this tale is. That we should all try dangerous, untested, illegal drugs as the consequences are only good. That would seem a trifle misguided. Lindy confronts Eddie midway through the film and tells him that when he is on the pill he is not the same person he was before, but this concern has evaporated by the time he is smarter, richer and more successful.
Eddie is, in truth, a rather unsympathetic character. In one scene, he is seen to put the love of his life, Lindy, in danger by requiring her to retrieve his stash of the pill, as he is too ill to get it. She soon realises she is being followed by a shady man with a large knife intent on killing her and claiming the pills for himself. A chase ensues, during which two bystanders are fatally wounded (as we meet the same man later on, one assumes he is never caught for this, despite several hundred people seeming him run through the park chasing Lindy with a large knife), and she becomes trapped. Calling Eddie, he advises her to take a pill, knowing everything that this has done to him as he lies near death on her office floor, in order to escape. It seems a rather cavalier attitude towards the one you love. Incidentally, Lindy duly takes the pill and as her mind expands, she is able to think of a way out of her predicament that is so ridiculously stupid (involving a foot race onto a busy ice rink, picking up an innocent girl and throwing her at the knife-armed pursuer) that one suspects that the drug in fact diminishes rational thought. It certainly enhances selfishness and a lack of compassion for fellow people!
Another thread that seems to be brushed aside implausibly is Eddie’s possible murder of a woman whom he spends the night with in a hotel room. The drug causes him to lose his memory for days at a time and he genuinely seems not to know whether he has killed her or not. We never learn the truth, although we know there was another man there too, so it possible he didn’t in fact commit murder. But the New York police certainly do suspect him, but can find no concrete evidence, and when a line up identification fails to identify Eddie, the police seem to simply disappear. Which raises the intriguing possibility that a suspected murderer, by the end of the film, is on his way to the US senate and the Presidency.
So interesting, well made, worth a curious view, but certainly flawed. Limitless is in fact, limited.
Film Rating: 3 out of 5
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