Fox // 2011 // 105 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // August 2nd, 2011
What if a pill could make you rich and powerful?
Almost any critic will tell you, there is nothing better than an old idea done extremely well. The familiarity of formula being fused with the fun of rediscovery creates one of the best aesthetic experiences a jaded journalist can have. It's like tasting chocolate all over again, or re-experiencing a forgotten bit of fun. This is exactly what happens with Neil Burger's excellent sci-fi thriller Limitless. Sure, we've seen the stooge to savant storyline a dozen times. Everyone from Cliff Robertson (Charly) to the Wayans Brothers (Senseless) have explored its rote possibilities. But here, thanks to a terrific performance by Bradley Cooper, some stellar supporting work from Robert DeNiro, and a deft behind-the-lens hand by Burger, we are once more transported to a tale of a simple man granted amazing mental acuity, and how it all leads to risk and ruin...or does it?
Eddie Morra (Cooper, The Hangover) is a failing writer with a basic book contract, an impending deadline, and a far too understanding girlfriend (Abbie Cornish, Sucker Punch). Unmotivated and unable to work, he spends his days drinking and his nights drying out. One day, he runs into the brother (John Whitworth, Gamer) of his ex-wife and the man has an intriguing offer -- a drug called NZT. It supposedly boosts brain function 80%, allowing a human being to access all parts of their smarts. Eddie is initially skeptical, but with his editor hounding him for pages, he swallows his pride...and the pill.
Instantly, he is sharper, more intelligent, and capable of solving any problem. He completes his book, starts dabbling in the stock market, and turns his stunted life into a success. Of course, he needs more of the substance, and money to bankroll his investments, and when that becomes difficult, he seeks the help of a Russian mobster (Andrew Howard, 2010's I Spit on Your Grave). After making a splash on Wall Street, he comes under the influence of high profile businessman Carl Van Loon (Robert DeNiro, Machete). He wants Eddie under his control, as well as the secret to his sudden rise.
Nothing beats solid entertainment. There's no debating it. When a premise delivers, and delivers well, you can ignore almost any flaw -- massive plot holes, unexplained character motivation, discrepancies in continuity. Indeed, the biggest mistake made by a movie is not allowing its ideas to trump incompleteness. As long as you fully explore the premise's potential, you can literally get away with motion picture murder. That's exactly what Limitless does. It gives us the engaging and likable Bradley Cooper, a pill that makes him the smartest man in the world, and then allows the narrative to walk us through the discoveries -- and the potential pitfalls -- that come with sudden amazing brain power. We get the highs (ease of writing, computer-like number crunching) and the evocative lows (a visual journey through NYC via infinite zoom), all meant to highlight our hero's dilemma. Throw in some sinister subplots and you've got a surprise sleeper that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
For his part, Neil Burger needs to be rechristened "the genre rejuvenator." He outpaced Christopher Nolan with his magician movie, The Illusionist, and tried to deconstruct the political potboiler with his early indie Interview with the Assassin. Even his little seen The Lucky Ones tried to tweak the manipulative 'coming home' military melodrama. Apparently, his creative purpose is to take something that shouldn't work and reimagine it in a way that will draw audience and critical attention away from the reasons it has been rejected. In the case of Limitless, we don't get syrupy saccharine over Eddie's deteriorating mental state, or a last act denouement which relegates him back to bum status. Instead, with the help of an outstanding script, we delve deep into the wish fulfillment of being better, smarter, quicker, and more capable than anyone else. Eddie is always "50 steps" ahead of everyone else, which makes his various conflicts and clashes all the more appealing. We like to see winners 'winning' (right, Charlie Sheen?) and our hero here is almost never wrong...almost.
But there's other reasons to celebrate Limitless, though you certainly couldn't have expected them from screenwriter Leslie Dixon. Look over her resume -- Overboard, Mrs. Doubtfire, Pay It Forward -- and argue that she's the go-to person for serious speculative thrills. Yet something about the source (a novel called The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn) spurred the best in her writing. The dialogue crackles and the plot twists seem organic, not forced from inside a concept by committee ideal. Of course, with actors like Cooper and DeNiro, it's hard to go contextually wrong. Both are cast a bit against type to begin with, but then fall into familiar patterns perfectly. We expect the studly Brad and the evil Robert, but the versions here resonate with real authority. It all comes together in a way that alleviates our fears and fulfills our slightly stunted expectations. Limitless's pleasures may come from a lowering of one's overall prospects, but the resulting pure fun is difficult if not impossible to resist. It's as addictive as NZT itself.
On Blu-ray, Limitless really shines. The subtle changes in the color composition of the film -- from the brights of Eddie's mental mania to the dull, drab browns and greens of his withdrawls and crashes -- are captured expertly in the AVC encoded 1080p transfer. The 2.40:1 presentation leaps off the screen, especially when those horizontal, vertigo-inducing zooms come into play. There is also an impressive level of visual fx work here, from Eddie's face penthouse to the numerous sequences where characters stand outside themselves -- sometimes, more than once. On the audio front, a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix makes the most of Burger's desire to play things both obvious and slightly more obscured. There are times when Eddie is overwhelmed with voices and ideas in his head. The speakers splash these mental hallucination all over the home theater system. Similarly, Paul Leonard-Morgan's amazing musical score and the film's use of ambient noise really ratchet up the fear factor.
As for bonus material, it's a case of intriguing vs. EPK. On the side of solid studio pimping, we get a behind-the-scenes documentary that makes Limitless seem like the second coming of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Similarly, an interview with Cooper and some of the cast comes across as back-slappingly self-serving. The alternate ending the cover art trumpets is not all that impressive and the unrated cut merely adds a few lines of dialogue, nothing racy or gratuitous. Finally, there is an audio commentary with Burger that is insightful, if just a tad stilted. He lets large gaps in the film go by without discussion and misses moments when we wish there was more of an explanation.
Since March is not usually a time of terrific film offerings, the arrival of Limitless was originally met by skepticism. Even with Cooper's rising star, there was no guarantee of goodness, or that cynical audiences would care. Luckily, preconceived notions were proven wrong and the movie went on to be one of 2011's most pleasant surprises (and profitable, with an estimated $155 million worldwide gross against a budget of $27 million). It just goes to show that old ideas can be easily refreshed, as long as you have people behind the scenes interesting in delivering a solid concept and not just a product. While it will probably be tainted by unnecessary sequels (one can easily envision an entire Direct-to-DVD series minus its stars), Limitless is a lot of fun. While its foundation may be familiar, the delivery is more than fresh.
Not Guilty. A great little sleeper.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Theatrical Version
* Alternate Ending
* Official Site