by Mel Valentin
A Faustian bargain is at the center of writer-director Neil Burger’s ("The Lucky Ones," "The Illusionist," "Interview with the Assassin") latest film, "Limitless," a shallow, slickly produced dramatic thriller that pivots on a high-concept premise (i.e., what if a pill could make you super-smart?). That premise, along with Bradley Cooper, an actor best known as the nominal lead of "The Hangover," and a paycheck-hungry Robert DeNiro, might be enough to draw mildly curious moviegoers to multiplexes this weekend, but slick production values and flashy storytelling, both over-abundant in "Limitless," can, at best, temporarily hide the shallowness and superficiality that Burger and his screenwriter, Leslie Nixon "Hairspray," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Overboard," "Outrageous Fortune"), bring to an obviously promising premise.When we first meet Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), he’s nattily dressed, ensconced in a high-rise condo, boxes, opened and unopened, strewn around his apartment. A muffled voice, definitely not American, possibly Russian, attempts to convince Eddie to open the steel-plated door to the apartment. Eddie naturally refuses, but it’s only a matter of time before his one-time business associate and Russian gangster, Gennady (Andrew Howard), breaks through the door and murders Eddie. Eddie, ready to jump from the high-rise building to his death many stories below, slips into voiceover mode and with that (usually redundant) voiceover, an extended flashback months earlier, when a different Eddie, long-haired, unkempt, not-quite a sad sack loser (How could he be when he looks like Cooper?), a science-fiction writer facing crippling writer’s block and the end of his romantic relationship with no-longer-sympathetic girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish).
"Modern-day Faust fails to deliver on a promising premise."
Down on his luck and facing imminent eviction, Eddie runs into Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), his ex-wife’s brother. Vernon, a former drug dealer, claims he’s gone legit, working as a consultant for a pharmaceutical company. Vernon offers Eddie NZT, a performance-enhancing drug for the brain. Vernon promises NZT will make Eddie super-smart, capable of accessing 100% of his brain and not, as popularly believed (and scientifically incorrect) only 20% of his brain. NZT’s effect on Eddie’s muddled brain is almost instant. One moment he’s being harassed and harangued by his landlord’s hot, young wife (she’s also, improbably, a law student), the next moment he’s engaging in vigorous sexual intercourse with her (this after he’s written a law school paper for her on a fictional U.S. Supreme Court justice).
NZT not only makes Eddie super-smart, it gives him boundless amounts of energy (he completes his novel in four days), and super-confidence. Like any (or most) drugs, NZT has to be taken every day or the effects wear off, creating the first problem of several, interrelated problems (e.g., supply, addiction, side effects). Eddie’s ambitions shift too. No longer interested in becoming a successful novelist (an idea that only makes token appearance from then on), Eddie decides to take his newfound mathematical acumen and become a day trader. Not happy at his relatively slow progress in amassing a fortune, Eddie takes out a loan from the aforementioned Russian gangster. Eddie’s super-quick success brings him to the attention of Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), a mega-wealthy investment banker eager to pick Eddie’s brains.
Burger visualizes Eddie’s transformation through a variety of mostly successful camera tricks (with a major assist from CG, of course). Eddie’s vision warps, fish-eye style, the camera hurtles at super-speed through hallways, streets, subways, anything and everything, connected into one continuous shot. Burger sometimes mixes it up by throwing in super-quick cuts of something Eddie saw or experienced, long ago, brought back with fearsome symmetry as he ruminates on the latest conundrum. Burger also includes multiple Eddies in several scenes, the better to communicate Eddie’s ability to multitask. In a scene that functions narratively as a key pivot point, Eddie’s addiction to NZT leads to an 18-hour binge of sorts, compressed into several minutes of screen time.
For all of Burger’s visual style, however, Limitless has to eventually return to Eddie’s actual story, his rise, fall, and (possibly) rise again, the obligatory redemptive arc that’s meant to turn Limitless from super-slick, shallow entertainment to semi-profound cautionary tale. To Burger’s minor credit, he resists the urge to turn Limitless into a vapid life lesson for Eddie and, presumably, the audience, making Eddie less the hero and more of an anti-hero. In the end, Eddie learns some lessons certainly, but they’re not the ones audiences are expecting to see and hear.Burger and Nixon deserve less (actually little) credit for taking "Limitless" into relatively safe territory, story wise. Once Eddie decides he wants wealth and the power that comes with wealth, "Limitless" turns into a not-quite-satisfying boardroom melodrama with Eddie and the oddly named Van Loon at the center. To keep a semblance of personal danger to Eddie, Burger and Nixon give Eddie his own personal stalker (Tomas Arana), whose malicious intent is easy to surmise. Between the boardroom melodrama, the stalker, and the Russian, "Limitless" has little room for anything except generic thrills where (and when) more could have been wrung from the high-concept premise.
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originally posted: 03/18/11 19:08:45