If you could take a pill that immediately transformed you into a more intelligent, charismatic version of yourself, would you? That’s the question posed by Neil Burger’s Limitless, an economical, urgent adaptation of Alan Glynn’s novel, The Dark Fields.
Bradley Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a dishevelled, down-on-his-luck author suffering from an incurable case of writer’s block. He’s trying to finish writing his ambitious science fiction novel, but his publisher’s deadline is looming and he hasn’t written a word. Running out of time, behind on his rent, and on the brink of losing his girlfriend, it’s hardly surprising that he takes the mysterious clear pill offered to him by his shady brother-in-law, Vernon Gant (Johnny Whitworth).
An “FDA approved clever pill” that temporarily expands the capabilities of his mind, the drug gives Eddie savant-like powers of memory and perception. His synapses firing like a Gatling gun, he’s able to make logical deductions that would confound Sherlock Holmes and learn instruments and languages within minutes.
With his newfound mental athleticism, Eddie completes his novel, starts earning huge sums of money on the stock market, and wins back his love interest.
All of this is related by Neil Burger in a mesmerising display of razor-sharp editing and neat visual effects, and Limitless‘ first act is a breathlessly related piece of filmmaking that recalls David Fincher’s eloquent storytelling in Fight Club, or the feverish pace of Trainspotting.
A compelling amalgam of sci-fi thriller and drug movie, Bradley Cooper’s superb in what are two subtly different roles: the bedraggled, exhausted Eddie without his supply of chemicals, and the slick, confident and verbose Eddie at full, chemical-fuelled throttle.
There’s no such thing as a drug without a side effect, and Limitless‘ clever pill, MDT-48, has a particularly nasty one. This, coupled with the Russian gangsters closing in and the drug in dwindling supply, soon leaves Eddie in a world of trouble even his towering intellect couldn’t foresee.
Limitless‘ second half doesn’t match up to the transformative first, with the film switching gear into more predictable thriller territory, but two things make the movie watchable from beginning to end: Bradley Cooper’s winning performance, and Burger’s confident, imaginative direction.
Robert De Niro’s good value, too, in a small yet pivotal supporting role as grumpy billionaire business mogul, Carl Van Loon. This still isn’t the mesmerising actor we knew and loved from Raging Bull, but he does get one standout scene, a brief but searing monologue about climbing the slippery ladder of success that provides a glimmer of the old De Niro magic.
Limitless‘ premise poses intriguing and pertinent questions about our desire for fame and success, our willingness to surrender our moral integrity for power, and the nature of addiction, but is also, for the most part, content to just hurtle along as a clever, witty thriller.
Not all of Limitless‘ plot developments are entirely plausible, and for a man with a self-described four-figure IQ, Eddie makes some profoundly odd decisions. But the film’s premise and pace mean these are easily overlooked while the theatre’s lights are dimmed.
Eddie’s a great, picaresque character, a modern-day Faust who sacrifices his sanity for a taste of success. Cooper invests what could have been an unbearably smug protagonist with warmth and charm, and even when he’s taking bizarre risks or making stupid decisions, he’s human and relatable. Ultimately, we’d all take the clear pill, too, if the opportunity were to present itself.
Like Duncan Jones’ Source Code, Limitless has, so far, been marketed in a low-key fashion that leaves the film’s fresher plot twists shrouded in secrecy, but ultimately undersells what is a smart, funny and exciting thriller.
Just look at the poster that’s accompanied its release. It’s two men (famous men, admittedly) standing in the middle of the street. I get the impression that the Hollywood marketing wizards simply couldn’t figure out how to sell it.
If there’s any justice, Limitless will find an audience through Internet buzz and word of mouth. And it deserves to, because Neil Burger has made a fascinating, original movie that deserves your attention.
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