Monday, March 21, 2011

'Limitless' Doesn't Live Up to Its Name

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Bradley Cooper continues his journey to leading man status in the newly released Limitless, an action thriller about a washed-up writer whose life is turned around (and then turned upside down) by a small, clear, not-so-FDA-approved pill. And while the movie is certainly better than a lot of the drivel released around this time of year, Limitless ended up being restricted by some glaring letdowns.

Directed by Neil Burger (The Illusionist) and adapted by Leslie Dixon from The Dark Fields by Alan Gynn, Limitless follows Eddie Maura (Cooper), a man seriously down on his luck—he finally scored a book deal only to be plagued with writer's block, he still hasn't recovered from his brief marriage that ended with his wife walking out on him over a decade ago and he has a constant look of having just been hit by a bus. By chance, he runs into his ex-brother-in-law, who gives him the aforementioned pill, NZT, which expands the user's brain activity five times over. With NZT, Eddie can learn French in a few short hours, write his overdue book in a day and, most importantly, unlock the key to the stock market without any sort of background in finance. It's amazing what the brain is capable of, huh?

Of course, as Peter Parker's wise uncle once said, with great power comes great responsibility, and it seems Eddie was never much into Spiderman comics because he never stops to consider the consequences of his actions. Despite Cooper's best efforts (and he was a highlight of the movie, and I'm not just talking about the requisite underwear scene), Eddie never comes off as someone we should be rooting for; all of his newly found abilities are used to advance his own success, even if it means risking his health and the safety of those around him. As Robert De Niro's character Carl Van Loon puts it, Eddie hasn't earned his success or power so he doesn't know how to properly use it.

One of the largest grievances I have with Limitless is that the great De Niro is criminally underused. We are talking about a man who's been nominated for six Oscars, and here he is playing a bland character who is neither tremendously virtuous or evil, just stuck somewhere in the middle. Sometimes these morally ambiguous characters provide interest to a thriller—is he the good guy or the bad guy?—but Carl Van Loon just falls flat. This tends to be a trend with Dixon's screenplay—everything feels generally underdeveloped. Eddie somehow learns how to become a trained fighter, and the movie becomes unnecessarily violent as it progresses. There is a fight scene that lasts a good 10 minutes that is completely unnecessary, while huge chunks of the plot never get so much as a few brief scenes here and there without much of a resolution.

The special effects used to put us in the world of a man using 100% of his brain function range from cartoonish to dizzying to occasionally awesome. The transition from muted, monotone colors to bright and vivid while on NZT bring the effects of the drug to life, but I wish they had pushed it a little further and more consistently: a highlight is when Eddie first started studying the stock market and the ceiling of his apartment transformed into a giant array of tickers.

Limitless is often entertaining and exciting, and it is the first time I can see Bradley Cooper really becoming a great leading man, but the weak development really hinders it. Ultimately, it is a movie about a man who becomes addicted to a drug and his life spirals out of control, but despite the multitude of things that get royally screwed as a result of NZT, this whole scenario doesn't seem to be a huge problem to anyone. All we are left with is an interesting concept with weaknesses that prove to be severely limiting.

Grade: C
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