DRUGS AND OTHER DRUGS
Review by Joel Frost
Any writer will tell you that there’s a fine line between genius and mundanity. One great paragraph can quickly lead into a mess of banal drivel. Getting started is a trick in and of itself; a fantastic idea that swirls, in-articulated, in a writer’s brain does not always find its way to the page. Even if it does, that idea may flatten and dilute out into a fairly dull narrative. False starts, re-starts, blocks and stalls; all standard parts of most writer’s work process. Trying to navigate an idea along while not losing its soul and all the while infusing it with brilliance is the trick. What was that line, or paragraph, or character, or scene, or idea again? Can’t remember, damnit. Well, anyway… gotta start somewhere.
“Limitless”, Neil Burger’s new film stars Bradley Cooper as Eddie Morra, an underachieving writer who finds his way with the help of a little pill full of clarity. Getting out of the starting gate is hard for our hero. He’s got an actual book contract, so he’s not a pretender, but he can’t seem to put together the actual book. He’s cluttered, a bit sleepy, and worried. There are hints of his promise, but the Eddie Morra that’s shown at the beginning of this film seems unlikely to overcome his limitations.
In that way, the film itself echoes the character. With stilted dialogue and little panache, “Limitless” is at first about as appealing as Brad Cooper with a three-day old beard, frizzy hair, un-showered and bumbling around like an ordinary loser. Failure isn’t much fun to witness, especially when the subject of the failure inspires glimmers of promise and sympathy. Early on, Morra stumbles around, delivering his expositional dialogue dutifully, and the film seems dead in the water.
Whether this is an intentional trick or merely evidence of how hard it is to make dullness interesting is hard to say. An argument could be made that the film cleverly sets up an audience by delivering a shabby first ten to fifteen minutes in order to represent and stress the contrast between the early scenes and the rest of the film. If it was a conscious decision, it’s a tricky one, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter, because around about the time that Eddie Morra meets up with an old friend who gives him a pill to take that is meant to give the user a kick of smarts, “Limitless” starts to wake up. As Bradley Cooper’s character does, the film becomes wildly more interesting, funny, clever, and generally appealing.
This is accomplished in a few ways. For one thing, Neil Burger (“The Illusionist”, “The Lucky Ones”) uses a kind of other-worldly starkness of color and movement in his framing that inspires giddy vertigo. That’s exactly what Morra is encountering himself; a rush of awareness and speed of perception that the pill makes possible. The pill is an appealing device, of course; who wouldn’t love the chance to be immediately transformed into the best version of him or herself with a little trick like that. Add the obvious connotation of danger that any drug brings to a story, and an audience is plopped into the whirlwind of vertiginous beauty that Neil Burger and the writers Alan Glynn (original novel) and Leslie Dixon (screenplay) create.
A film like this demands a charismatic and vulnerable lead actor, and Bradley Cooper is quickly establishing himself as the right guy for those jobs. He’s a better actor than his blue eyes and winning smile suggest on their own. Those things can actually be a hindrance to an actor; if he seems too perfect, he’s hard to root for. Cooper manages to sidestep his own good looks while still keeping his charm. It’s no easy trick, but those who do it best (see: Ford, Harrison and Depp, Johnny) usually find long, successful, and often interesting careers.
It’s an exclusive club. Even the great Robert DeNiro, here playing Carl van Loon, the kind of enemy to Morra that is sometimes said to be best kept closer than a friend, never had to overcome a classically perfect appearance. DeNiro does his usual fine work with a fairly thankless role in “Limitless”, one which really only earns its weight in a final scene which manages a twist that would perhaps have been harder to pull off if not for the presence of all the characters an audience can see on the aging actor’s face.
“Limitless” tries hard to carve its own space. In a time when sequels and re-boots rule the box office and it’s hard for an original script to get made into a film, this one is a brash upstart. At one point, Morra tells the two new security guards he’s hired, “Wear different suits. This isn’t The Matrix.” Thank goodness it isn’t. There are hints of and nods to those films, but “Limitless” has guts and cojones that owe more to the Coen brothers than the Wachowski brothers. In one particular scene, Brad Cooper practically drinks from the vein of “Blood Simple”. It’s delicious, and illuminating.
“Limitless” is a test for Bradley Cooper, I expect. If he can carry and sell this film with his natural talent and make it a box office success, plan on seeing a whole lot more of him. You will even if this one isn’t a wild box office smash, but if it is, his options in Hollywood will be… what’s the word… it slipped my mind. Wish there was a pill for that.
Directed by: Neil Burger
Release Date: March 18, 2011
Run Time: 105 Minutes