Only thing limiting film is the end

Posted: Thursday, April 14, 2011


Ap Photo/Relativity Media, John Baer
Ap Photo/Relativity Media, John Baer
In this film publicity image released by Relativity Media, Robert De Niro, left, and Bradley Cooper are shown in a scene from "Limitless."

Many Rivers Producations

1 hour, 45 minutes

My run of "smart science fiction films without the huge sci-fi budget" continues this week with "Limitless," a dramatic thriller about a mysterious drug that unlocks your complete mental potential giving you, as our hero played by Bradley Cooper describes, a four-digit IQ.

Wow. Considering Einstein was estimated to have an IQ of 180, that's quite a claim. The question is, is the movie as smart as its protagonist claims to be? No, but considering the silly premise, it's much better than you'd think.

Cooper is Eddie Morra, a deadbeat writer wannabe whose imagined ambition far outweighs his actual. He dreams of, and brags about in the local taverns, being a real novelist with a fat book contract and future of fame and fortune. In actuality he's been stuck on the first word for months and is in real danger of forfeiting even the modest advance on his book that he was paid. And if that weren't enough, Eddie's girlfriend, a savvy, competent, up and coming editor, has finally wised up and is leaving him.

It would appear that poor Eddie Morra has hit rock bottom when, out of the blue, he runs into Vernon, his ex-brother-in-law and unrepentant drug dealer. Out of courtesy, Eddie agrees to have a drink with Vernon, but it's not booze that this sleazy character is schlepping. Instead, Vernon produces a sample of a new wonder drug, NZT, which supposedly opens pathways in the brain previously closed. It's Eddie's, on the house, and though our hero isn't necessarily into drugs, he figures he's got nothing to lose and pops the pill. At first, nothing, and then abruptly, it's as though the lights come on, an effect shrewdly demonstrated in the film by a dramatic lightening of the scene, briefly leaning toward overexposure.

Suddenly, connections are being made that Eddie had no idea existed. Memories are flooding back that Eddie had never even taken conscious note of. Conclusions are leapt to, hypothesis proved, potential achieved. Eddie is a new man. For one day. Next morning, Eddie awakes having written half his novel, but the lights are dimmed once again. He's got to get more NZT, no matter the money, no matter who Vernon is working for, and no matter the danger he will soon find himself in.

I'll admit that when I saw the previews for "Limitless," I wasn't particularly impressed. I saw a low-rent thriller, a stepping stone for the star-on-the-rise Cooper, and slightly respectable slum for Robert DeNiro, who plays a powerful investor in the film. One thing really turned me around, and that was finding out that the director of the film was Neil Burger, the man behind another relatively small but ambitious film, "The Illusionist," starring Edward Norton. I was similarly dismissive of "The Illusionist" when I saw the previews for it, believing it to be a pale imitation of Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige." Instead, what I found was a unique, beautifully written, and visually stunning, mystery thriller. I don't know anything else, really, about Burger, but if he could do "The Illusionist," then I'd certainly give "Limitless" a try.

Like it's predecessor, "Limitless" has a unique and very cool visual aesthetic which adds to the fairy tale feel of the film.

In addition, the acting is very good. Cooper proves he has real range with this role, and DeNiro, while not setting any new records, is certainly not slumming.

The rest of the supporting cast is good, but I'd like to call out a particularly showy performance by Andrew Howard as a ruthless Russian gangster who gets a taste of NZT and goes in a completely different direction than Morra.

Howard has done mostly TV, and some fairly crummy films to this point, but hopefully he gets some real work out of this, because he was great.

But aside from the visuals and the acting, the real star of this film is the script, as it would have to be in order to make a broad Twilight Zone-y premise like this work. "Limitless" plays out just as any film about drug addiction might, continually challenging the audience to view NZT as at all positive. And of course, that's what you want to do. It opens your mind, not like LSD or some kind of hallucinogen, but in a seemingly completely beneficial way. Simply put, the drug makes you smarter. It doesn't make you high, doesn't impair you, doesn't have side effects.

Well, that's not completely true, but I don't want to give away too much. Regardless, NZT is a potentially benign super-drug. So why does it cause so much hell? That's the beauty of the script -- to offer a completely new, yet completely familiar picture of addiction. I was really impressed with "Limitless."

That is, until the last five minutes.

The ending of the film makes no sense, especially when viewed in context of the larger themes. I'm not giving anything away, but suffice it to say that I was left with a big "Huh?" to take away. That's not to say that the ending isn't neat or tidy or well-constructed -- I just couldn't make it jell with everything I'd seen before. Maybe I misunderstood. Maybe I need to see it again. Maybe I need to think it through. I realize it's difficult to understand my issue without more detail, but I don't want to spoil the other 95 percent of a very good movie.

I realize "Limitless" is supposed to be an ironic title, but I still wasn't expecting the script to hit a limit in the form of a big brick wall in the last few scenes of the film. Maybe upon further reflection I'll change my tune, but for now the movie is instead Limited, if only just.

Grade: B+

"Limitless" is rated PG-13 for violence, sexual situations, and language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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