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MOVIE REVIEW: Limitless (2011)

REVIEW SUMMARY: A frequently glib but smoothly paced and visually arresting take on a Twilight Zone idea.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Unemployed writer Edward Morra is introduced to the drug NZT, heightening his intelligence.

PROS: Neil Burger’s direction and cinematography, specifically during the moments when the intelligence-amplifying drug takes effect; remarkable soundtrack; a strong cast, with a very good central performance by Bradley Cooper; unpredictable thriller execution; mostly convincing examination of the effects of superhuman brainpower…
CONS: …that really should go farther than it does; the potential for a morality tale, but absent any morality; predictable thriller elements, especially with corrupt Wall Street brokers and Russian gangsters; lack of a truly transformative ending.

As Limitless, the new feature directed by Neil Burger (The Illusionist) opens, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) contemplates jumping from the ledge of his apartment building as Russian gangsters attempt to force their way through the thick blast door that leads into his apartment. Morra, we learn as the movie unfolds, has taken large doses of the experimental drug NZT, which bestows upon the user heightened intelligence, and in the process has run afoul of these brutal hoods. A curious thing, heightened intelligence as portrayed in movies: often, when characters find the means to jack up their IQs several hundred points, they wind up behaving in a manner inversely proportional to their newly acquired intellectual candlepower…for example, by getting into fights they should know to avoid, or becoming involved with Russian gangsters who want their own share of NZT so that they might become smarter criminals. To show the real effects of intelligence amplification, the sort of thing that one sees in, say, Ted Chiang’s “Understand,” would have required Burger and screenwriter Leslie Dixon (adapting the novel The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn) to eschew the thriller elements that, paradoxically, contribute to Limitless’s pleasures.

Limitless wants to be not just a great science fiction movie but also a character study, Hitchcockian thriller, noir, superhero origin story, wish fulfillment fantasy, and chase movie. Usually it works; from the moment Morra meets his sleazy ex-brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), who offers him his first hit of NZT, he, and we, are hooked. Even if you weren’t down on your luck, stuck on the novel you cannot quite begin (described as science fiction, but in reality a manifesto of what ails the twenty-first century; be honest, you’d read it), even if your Novakesque ice queen girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) had not just broken up with you, wouldn’t you be just curious enough to, in Vernon’s words, “access the remaining eighty percent of your brain” that you don’t use? (Then again, my hackles might be raised; here’s a guy who claims to represent the pharmaceutical firm engaged in clinical trials of NZT, and he’s trotting out this bit of urban legend. And yet, I still might, just out of curiosity.) Even if the boost is only temporary (all the better to make intelligence amplification marketable), well, at least some of us would be willing to at least see how much it would raise our IQs. Most of us, too, would believe ourselves to be human beings at least as decent as Morra; he’s not morally sleazy (though his actions, even at the movie’s beginning, are occasionally questionable) or ignorant or even dishonest with himself. So what’s the worst that could possibly happen?

Often, that is where the warning bells would go off. They should go off. Anybody who has even a passing familiarity with The Twilight Zone would recognize this as the moment where Morra should be most careful. But as he continues to take NZT, he develops a plan to better the world. Needing seed money, he takes out a loan from the gangster Gennady (Andrew Howard) and begins to build huge amounts of capital. To acquire the power he will need to move his plan forward, he meets energy mogul Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), and begins advising him on an upcoming merger with Hank Atwood (Richard Bekins), who, according to Van Loon, “was nothing two years ago.”

Up to this point, Limitless handles things deftly if glibly. When NZT begins to take effect, Morra sees the world much more brightly, and he sees the world as an intricate Escher-like design. It’s only a hint of what might intelligence amplification might be like, and fortunately we only get a hint. By allowing the viewer only glimpses of the mind somebody whose IQ has been cranked up from three digits to four, it avoids alienating the audience. And by having Morra narrate the movie at a point when he is (I’m presuming) not on NZT, he can flesh out some of the details of intelligence amplification without actually having to show it. Clever, that.

And that’s when his blackouts begin. He becomes addicted. And he might, just might, be involved in a murder. And it’s at this point, when the movie begins to pull out all of the thriller machinations, where it begins to fall apart, undermined by its thriller elements (which always seem to require that the main characters behave in very stupid ways; even when his intelligence is not amplified, I often wondered why Morra thought that getting involved with gangsters was ever a good idea), which themselves are damaged by the lack of a real antagonist. The movie sets up Van Loon and Atwood as the primary villains, but never follows through, forcing Howard’s Gennady to act as substitute. Fun though his character is, he’s simply too small-time to be a major threat. Even when he has begun taking NZT himself, and threatens Morra for more pills, he doesn’t come off as much smarter than he did before.

Perhaps Morra himself is the antagonist, in true character study fashion. But no, Cooper’s performance, while engaging, stays on one note throughout. Though he becomes addicted to NZT, he doesn’t suffer much from it. He worries that he might have killed someone, but, while he feels uncertain of what actually happened, he never shows any regret or remorse. Given superhuman powers, he understands the superhuman responsibility he must take, but remains deadpan about it. So it doesn’t work here, either. As science fiction, it never answers fundamental questions: who developed NZT? Why does Morra seem to be one of the very few individuals actually benefitting from the drug? (Even Slan had more than one Slan.) Worse, as in the worst science fiction, we must take the movie’s word for it that Morra has the compassion not to misuse his power, and that such power in one person’s hands is actually a good thing, a necessary thing. For all of the moral issues it could raise, Limitless is a surprisingly morality-free movie.

And yet, for all of its faults, Limitless stands as one of the more engaging genre movies to come out thus far this year. Burger’s direction ensures that the movie keeps moving even as the multiple genre elements begin unraveling like a poorly loomed sweater, and offers enough visual candy to hold our eyes to the screen. And, unlike most thrillers, but as in the best science fiction, there is the promise of transformation at the movie’s end. Only a hint, yes, but it is transformative. Limitless, unfortunately, may not be the smartest ride – it really could have used NZT itself – but at least it’s one that most won’t mind taking.

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