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Movie review: 'Limitless'

In 'Limitless,' star Bradley Cooper takes a pill that makes him super smart, which gets him only so far before the plot unravels in this would-be thriller.

March 18, 2011|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Bradley Cooper, left, and Abbie Cornish star in "Limitless."
Bradley Cooper, left, and Abbie Cornish star in "Limitless." (John Baer )

Very early on in "Limitless," a psychological tease about a pharmaceutically enhanced brainiac, star Bradley Cooper is teetering on the thin rail of a high-rise balcony contemplating one of those jumps that guarantees the sweet hereafter.

It turns out to be as good a metaphor for Cooper as it is for his character, Eddie Morra; both are courting considerable risks in director Neil Burger's wannabe thriller about a super-pill that will make anyone who takes it super smart.

For Cooper, the question was: Could he play smart-Eddie? He comes close enough to suggest there is something more to the actor than just smirking arrogant handsome guy, which until now has been the definition of most of his characters, notably his breakout role in "The Hangover." For Eddie, it's more a management issue — can he handle the high-octane, mind-over-matter life he's suddenly got?

But smart isn't all it's cracked up to be and soon the movie is unraveling faster than all of Eddie's grand schemes. The pill may be new, but the lessons are old — all drugs have side effects and all the smarts in the world don't keep you from making dumb decisions. The latter, perhaps something the filmmakers should have paid more mind to.

Burger, who crafted 2006's likable period drama, "The Illusionist," with Ed Norton as a magician, has got a lot more illusions to create here in trying to bring novelist Alan Glynn's "The Dark Fields" to the big screen. Leslie Dixon's screenplay has streamlined the book, merged some characters and complications, and given it a Hollywood ending that dispenses with most of the morality clauses that the novelist used to counterbalance the aphrodisiac of brilliance.

Abbie Cornish is his on-and-off girlfriend. Robert De Niro is a corporate merger heavy who wants a piece of smart-Eddie, and then wants a piece of the smart-pill action. They are there essentially to play angel versus devil on Eddie's shoulder while he contemplates the power and the possibilities of always being the smartest guy in the room.

But the fundamental difficulty is that so much of Glynn's story lives in Eddie's mind. What does smart look like? How does it feel? Glynn uses up a lot of words answering that.

It's not as easy to do with a camera lens, though director of photography Jo Willems tries to keep it interesting and intense and have a little fun with it too. Sometimes Eddie finds himself walking through a thunderstorm of letters raining down around him, or watching as the ceiling tiles spin like a slot machine, with numbers everywhere. And sometimes Eddie's brain is working so fast that he gets ahead of himself — literally — with both of us (audience and Eddie) able to see multiple Eddies, trailing neon streaks of energy like a comet, as he pushes the boundaries of this brave new world made possible by the super-drug, named NZT if you care and not, I repeat not, FDA approved.

In addition to giving smart a shape and form, there's a story to tell and too much is done via a voice-over narration by Cooper. At first Eddie is a disheveled and failing writer; so a writer. A shady old friend he hasn't seen in years slips him a tab of help, a little piece of temptation that will unleash the 90% of his brain he hasn't been using (it's the scientific average, with humanity typically turning on only about 10% of our intellectual wattage, or so we're told).

After Eddie takes an NZT tab, he writes a novel in one night. A few more pills and he's speaking a couple of foreign languages, day-trading, then brokering mega-mergers, which is where De Niro's mogul, a guy named Van Loon, comes in. Also the shady friend (I think the technical term is "dealer") is dead, there is a skin-peeling loan shark with an Eastern European accent after him, and Eddie's stash of pills is shrinking.

The disappointment is that for all of the possibilities, "Limitless" never gets beyond "limited." De Niro is playing Van Loon at the intersection of the "Meet the Fockers'" ex-CIA conspiracy-fueled father-in-law and his overbearing, self-righteous, daddy dearest of "This Boy's Life." Cornish is just playing pretty, but in that accessory way that ensures her Lindy has more warmth than depth. Best of the bunch by far is veteran British stage actor Andrew Howard, making an excellent skin-peeling villain and an equally excellent case for why bad guys should never be given smart pills.

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