Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Movie Review: Limitless

A Limited Hodgepodge

"Ultimately, Limitless suffers from the very same implication its title suggests, an infinitely frenzied scope."

      The word limitless implies an environment of boundless and unrestricted vastness. Such an implication, however broad, insinuates a certain immeasurable quality. Well Director Neil Burger's (The Illusionist) newest film, so aptly titled Limitless, is far from illimitable discussion. Quite the contrary, Burger's visually frenetic, extravagantly plotted science-fiction thriller is easily quantifiable, unfortunately to such a finite degree, that the ambitious film markedly loses credence.
      Based on the Alan Glynn novel The Dark Fields, and the Leslie Dixon screenplay (Pay It Forward, Mrs. Doubtfire), Limitless is an exhaustively paced, unsettled amalgamation. It is composed of equal parts; overt science fiction fare and satire, fused together by a frenzied structural narrative, commensurate with any modern day thriller—which begs the question, can science improve intelligence? Dixon and Burger emphatically state, yes.
      It is not a taut narrative. It is not a magnificent directorial exhibition. It is not even an exceptional acting tour de force. What is is, quite compellingly, is a marginally-above average combination of each of these paramount filmmaking elements. The end result is an entertaining jolt of an elaborately premised story, which juxtaposes some decidedly relevant questions about modern medicine, the pharmaceutical industry, Wall Street, and human psychology.

      "A sparkling cocktail of useful information." These are the words uttered by our handsome, though at first glance, disheveled and unkempt protagonist Eddie Morra, played by consummate winner (Charlie Sheen would undoubtedly be proud), Bradley Cooper. A struggling writer living in the hustle and bustle of New York City and the neon canyons of Times Square, Eddie is at first introduced as a down on his luck schlep; his girlfriend Lindy (the beautiful Abbie Cornish), dumps him. Heck, Eddie can't even muster the creative force necessary to pen one word in his book despite a looming deadline. 
      But fate intervenes in the form of a fast-talking, drug-dealing man of the streets named Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), the brother of Eddie's ex-wife Melissa Grant, and a mysterious new drug called NZT. A combination of Vernon's emphatic sales pitch and Eddie's terminal confidence, and screaming plight, Eddie swallows the pill. His life takes a drastic turn.
      This powerful drug instills a newfound vigor in Eddie. This not-quite-legal substance enhances his cerebral powers, allowing him to tap into previously neglected areas of his brain. In a sense, Eddie becomes an omniscient and extremely confident force. Burger illustrates this seismic biochemical shift by employing some dazzling, though at times, tedious visual tricks. Eddie procures information by means of old-fashioned editing and other ornate tricks—a rapid-scramble of close-ups, usually revolving to a shot of Cooper's oceanic blue eyes. In a sequence reminiscent of The Matrix, floating letters fall from the ceiling of Eddie's apartment—recalling to memory, the cascading numbers and letters on the computers in The Matrix. Burger also wields a stylistically agile visual trick to convey the psychological contrast of Eddie-on-drugs and Eddie-not-on-drugs. When NZT enters Eddie's bloodstream; the colors on the screen feverishly intensify, the focus sharpens, and the image seems to warp, as if mirroring the earthshaking neurological transformation of Eddie's brain.

      Once Eddie's internal faculties mix with NZT, Bradley Cooper's character becomes a tonic combination of Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), Will Hunting (Good Will Hunting), and Sack Lodge (Wedding Crashers). Abreast of cultural trends, equipped with a cannibalized intellect, and defined by a fastidious and impeccably groomed appearance, Eddie's NZT-ridden life takes dynamic shape. Everything "read, heard or seen is now organized and available...a tablet a day and what I could do with my [Eddie] life was limitless." Disregarding the overt reference to the film's title, Eddie's once destitute and pitiable circumstances have been replaced by an exorbitant and self-absorbed readiness, owed entirely to his fateful acquisition of that alluring chemical substance, NZT. Not your novel public service announcement, now is it? 
      Eddie's dilemma is no longer whether he can write one page in his book or scrap together enough change to get a drink at the bar. His newest predicament is how many millions he can make and woman he can slay. What he needed was a big idea. He turns to the Stock Market.
      At this point, the narrative sort of embodies the Faust Legend. Eddie's tantalizing ownership of such unlimited intelligence begets a string of consequences; chief among them is the loss of his idiosyncratic spirit. As Eddie's mental capacity improves, his personal tact becomes shallower. He learns a wealth of new foreign languages, plays the piano like Mozart, and makes Warren Buffet look the Oracle of Pittance. However, he selfishly employs this chemical endowment to sleep with numerous women, turn Chuck Norris into a proud supporter, and make lots of "bank bro" (thank you Brennan from Step Brothers). Consequently, you can either embrace Eddie, as an unintentional example of the Dos Equis man or lampoon him, as a cinematic reincarnation of our real-life craziest man, Charlie Sheen.
      It can be reasonably argued that Limitless represents an aggrandized take on the mechanics of modern day drug usage. The proliferation of the pharmaceutical industry, and the glamorization of "self-help drugs" replete with constant overtures of personal enhancement, Limitless steadfastly mirrors the hyperactive celerity of today's drug culture. When Eddie's on the pill, he's debonair, charming, and exceedingly intellectual. When he's off it, he looks like a character from Hangover that just tried to survive 12-rounds in the ring with Mike Tyson. The message is conflicting, but its sordid presence permeates much of Nixon and Burger's adaptation.
      One of the puzzling plot contrivances of Burger's film is a Russian loan shark (Andrew Howard), who becomes a thorn in Eddie's side once he becomes addicted to NZT. Another pressing concern of mine is the continual demise of De Niro's acting pedigree. In the film, he plays a financial tycoon by the name of Carl Van Loon. Although, he is one of my favorite actors of all-time Robert De Niro, has inexcusably mailed in his prodigious Hall of Fame acting career. Despite an array of exceptional performances in the 70's, 80's and 90's, De Niro has more recently been defined by a string of uninspiring roles. Sadly, Limitless provides no recourse for us De Niro devotees.

      Ultimately, Limitless suffers from the very same implication its title suggests, an infinitely frenzied scope. Too many matters, medical and otherwise, are left unexplained, and the intimations of a grand conspiracy that Eddie routinely grapples with never really pays off. 
      My second biggest gripe with Burger's film is the inexplicably uneven and jumbled pacing. To paint an analogy, it's almost as if Burger decides to pump someone with a heart defibrillator, and supply him with steroids—after said person casually falls to the ground—while what the person really needs is a bandage, and a little encouragement—it is grossly ill-conceived.
      Despite this complaint, Limitless is still an enjoyable film. The inconsistent pacing and many plot holes may undermine the narrative, but they also help color a compelling landscape with a furious energy and wit. Eddie's fate turns out to be a spiked joke, and at the final moment, Limitless reveals itself to be a provocatively cynical parable for an age of infinite acceleration. Burger's film suggests that evolution has given us immense brain power, and that if someone could only take hold of this power, there's no ceiling to what we could accomplish: if we all walked and talked like Eddie, we'd engineer an unprecedented corporate merger that competes with the sheer scale of Exxon/Mobil, then we'd go match the political ambitions of David Norris from The Adjustment Bureau, as we run for a Senate seat in New York while simultaneously competing with Shia Labeouf's character from Wall Street 2, as we procure prime Manhattan real estate.
      The film's structure may be erratic at times, but Bradley Cooper's maiden turn as a leading man is highly commendable. After all, it is Cooper's charm and wit that helps transform Limitless' rather perfunctory climax into a funny and fascinating experience. Absent of any stark denouement, Cooper's fiercely self-absorbed character helps make Burger's film a wholly enjoyable experience, which is a pretty rare, and unexpected affirmation given the lack of any substantive character redemption.

6.5 out of 10

*Official Limitless Trailer.

Some of the obnoxious plot holes/contrivances: 
  • The romance angle was despicably flat, and Abby Cornish doesn't get enough screen time. 
  • As De Niro's biggest fan, he painfully disappoints yet again. Begrudgingly, I must concede that you can chop this one up to the "mailed it in to collect a robust paycheck" category.
  • If Eddie is so damn smart, why can't he engineer a biochemical solution that mimics the effects of NZT, once his supply dwindles?
  • If Eddie is presumably, this pillar of intellectual potency, why the heck does he supply the Russian mobster aka the incoherent brute with NZT pills?
  • Eddie hires two behemoth bodyguards. Where the heck are they when the Russian and his goons attack Eddie's sprawling apartment aka his fort knox-enforced bunker??
  • How can I reasonably presume that Eddie is capable of his greatest Dracula impersonation during his dyeing hour, vigorously sucking up blood from the now deceased Russian's blood stream—all in a last ditch effort to score some NZT? Actually, this is the kind of cinematic leap of faith that I have no problem taking. 
  • The whole idea of the pill itself is patently ridiculous.
Some stellar highlights:
  • Super-fantastic fight scene. When you watch the film, you'll know what I'm talking about.
  • Myriad intentional or unintentional film references. Watching this film conjured up memories of American Psycho, American Gangster, The Matrix, Good Will Hunting, and Wedding Crashers (among others).
  • Fancy visual trickery complements of Burger's direction.
  • Clever dialogue complements of Leslie Dixon's screenplay.
  • Cooper's leading man credentials. I'll buy his bill of goods. 
  • Very promising first act.


  1. Sounds like Neil Burger tried to compress too much into too little time and forgot the details. Ah well, I still want to see if only because I like Bradley Cooper and I find the premise interesting. Too bad about De Niro. I miss his on-screen talent and his once excellent taste in roles.

  2. Exactly. Burger was trying too hard to make this elaborately plotted thriller, and as a direct consequence, he lost the central focus.

    It is still a fun and entertaining film, which at the end of the day, is all we're really looking for.

    I share your sentiment on De Niro. I wish he could channel back that old fashioned charm and talent.

  3. it's interesting that for some reason I do love Bradley Cooper, although I don't remember ever enjoying any of his films :) I did like his early deceased TV show KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL.

  4. Yeah, I've become a Bradley Cooper fan as well, which I didn't think would happen when I first saw him in Wedding Crashers as that obnoxious stuck up jerk.

    Actually, it's his performance that notches the score up .5 from a 6 rating. I thought he gave a fine leading male performance.

  5. Well done!! Such a great review. I love how you described Eddie with 03 different characters. It was a perfect combination. Patrick Bateman...nice! : ) I definitely agree about Abbie Cornish. She wasn't given enough screen time or much of anything really. Her character was almost a waste of her talent. Robert De Niro was just satisfactory, nothing spectacular like you said. It's really disappointing because we all know his potential and he could have rocked this character if he wanted to. However it all still turned out pretty good thanks to Cooper. Funny thing, I think Shia Labeouf was considered for this role as well. I kind of wonder if it would have been as good.

    Oh and thank you so much, I am feeling waayyy better! : )

  6. Thanks Nicole. Glad to hear you're feeling better :)

    Yeah, once NZT took hold of Eddie, he became this great ball of intrigue. It was very cinematic. And Cornish needed more screen time to develop her character. Plus, she's beautiful!

    As far as De Niro, I was pretty disappointed. I thought he would bring more to his character, which is not entirely his fault. There could have been more written into his character and a better development (perhaps more motivation).

    Cooper did an excellent job. If Shia got the part, the film would still be entertaining, but I wouldn't have been AS impressed. I just really liked Cooper's style, his depth, his transformation. It all worked.

    And you're welcome!

  7. Another very interesting and well written review, Matt. I personally didn't expect much about this knowing only that it's a film about a guy who takes a pill that makes him smart.
    Excellent list of obnoxious plot holes and stellar highlights there.

  8. Can't wait to watch this movie! :)

    Thanks for the review.

    The Cat Hag

  9. @ Jaccstev

    Thanks buddy!

    My expectations were pretty standard going into this film. I like watching a movie without really paying too much attention to the trailers or the "buzz." Because I can go into the theater with a clean slate and be surpised.

    @ The Cat Hag

    You're welcome! It's a fun, entertaining film, so you should enjoy it!

  10. De Niro needs to be the hard ass we all love again, or the theif that he is so great at (Heat, the score).
    I knew this would be that type of film that would get overdone, hopefully still enjoy it though.
    Great review Matty, and get your handsome face in the contest btw, the judges at will love you

  11. Absolutely. He needs to re-team with Scorsese and make a gangster film. Recapture that old school magic.

    Haha! I appreciate the flattery! I just finished my Movie Poster. Hope it's good.

    And thanks!

  12. I totally want to see this movie!!

  13. Awesome. I hope my review helped convince you!

    And thanks for following. I'm going to follow back!

  14. I've finally had the time to read your whole "Limitless" review, and ... WOW! It's sooo spot-on. Love the positives/negatives thing the most. Yet have to see this, but I get more and more excited with each great review for it.

  15. Thanks man. I always appreciate your reviews!

    You should definitely check it out. While it's not a flawless film, it is very entertaining.