Movie Review: Limitless (2011)

Limitless-Poster

  • Director: Neil Burger
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, Robert De Niro
  • Screenplay: Leslie Dixon
  • Based on the Novel by: Alan Glynn
  • Music By: Paul Leonard-Morgan
  • Cinematography: Jo Willems
  • Running Time: 105 Minutes
  • Premiered: March 18, 2011
  • DVD Release: July 19, 2011

Synopsis: With the help of a mysterious pill that enables the user to access 100 percent of his brain abilities, a struggling writer becomes a financial wizard, but it also puts him in a new world with lots of dangers. (From IMDb)

Review: Today there is a cure for almost everything. And it usually comes in pill form. Limitless asks the question: is there a cure for writer’s block? Well, if there is not one now, there will be one soon. In this film, our hero is one Eddie Morra. Now Eddie is a down on his luck author who cannot overcome his crippling writers block. One day, his ex-girlfriend’s brother meets him on the street and offers him a less than legal substance called NZT. This miracle pill allows the user to access otherwise neglected parts of the brain.  Suddenly Eddie is a walking genius whose possibilities are limitless.

Limitless is based off the novel The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn. I have never read the novel, so I am not sure how faithful the movie is to the source material. But it did help cement Bradley Cooper as a dramatic leading man. While the Hangover Trilogy was financially successfully, it was not a great vehicle for launching a dramatic film career. Cooper portrays the different variations of Eddie easily. However, the screenplay never gives Cooper the opportunity to explore the darker depths of Eddie’s character. Eddie is actually a rather bland protagonist. I think this is more down to how the character was written versus how he was portrayed. The screenwriter could not decide if Eddie was supposed to be funny or serious. This resulted in a character that is neither. However, Cooper did an excellent job of making Eddie seem real. Just a rather bland kind of real.  

Cooper is not the only actor forced to portray an under developed character. Abbie Cornish plays Eddie’s on-and-off girlfriend, Lindy. Other than being pretty and showing up when the narrative needs to move along, the character serves no real purpose. Lindy comes across as warm but not overly deep. Robert De Niro is the main protagonist, Van Loon. Essentially, Loon is a corporate merger heavyweight who wants to exploit super enhanced Eddie and control a piece of the smart-pill market. Unfortunately, this role is nearly identical to all the roles De Niro has been playing for the past fifteen years. Van Loon is practically the same character De Niro played in Meet the Parents. I wish Van Loon had either been written differently or portrayed by someone else. De Niro did a good job as always, but his character is indistinguishable from all his others ones. Some variety would be appreciated every now and then.

I became familiar with Neil Burger via his excellent film The Illusionist. That film is elegant and perfectly paced. Burger should have mimicked that more restrained style when filming Limitless. In this film, the narrative reaches a feverish pace and several scenes are shot with hyperactive clarity to showcase Eddie’s inner turmoil. When he ingests the NZT, the colors intensify, the imagery becomes slightly warped, and the focus is super intense. Then there are a lot of close ups of Cooper’s hypnotic eyeballs. Most of the time these types of gimmicks work. But Burger over relied upon visual trickery to showcase Eddie’s transformation. A more restrained visual interpretation would have tightened up the narrative and improved the pacing. Also, Burger included a montage sequence. This felt a little out-of-place and the point could have been made in a less clichéd manner. However, the film is gorgeous to watch. Despite the trickery, the cinematography is excellent.

While I enjoyed the movie, there were a couple narrative choices I wish the screenplay had explored. Extended and strenuous use of a brain’s synapses will trigger some form of side effect. However, the film takes a while to hint at these effects yet never really explores them in depth. Also, no one is suspicious when an unsuccessful author suddenly switches careers and becomes the new Wall Street whiz? Eddie’s sudden career switch is never really explained, it just happens. And this nearly derails the pacing by showing a litany of scenes involving computer day trading, conferences, meeting Van Loon, and a flow of financial analysis charts. Thankfully no PowerPoint presentations were included. I think the film would have been stronger if the screenplay had explored Eddie’s newly rekindled relationship with Lindy and his confrontation with his ex-wife. The ex-wife happened to suffer from the dangerous side-effects of prolonged NZT use. Exploring this relationships would have been more intriguing than the overused Russian gangster villain plot element.

As a dramatic film, Limitless is adequately entertaining. But the science fiction elements are intriguing. So this elevates the narrative into the rather enjoyable category. While it is not groundbreaking, it is a solid addition to the science fiction movie genre. Despite my problems with the narrative and the character development, I still like watching the film. Because so many science fiction movies verge on being terrible, I am always happy when a film manages to be both good and slightly scientifically plausible.  I would recommend this film to anyone who wants to watch a solid dramatic science fiction movie but does not want to overthink the premise. Limitless is similar in premise to Scarlett Johansson’s film Lucy. However, I think the events depicted in Limitless are more plausible than the events in Lucy.

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