Neil Burger is one of those directors who doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves. Nor the buzz. He’s whip-smart, makes films that are mainstream but slightly left of center, and as his toolbox has grown so too have the results. His Interview with the Assassin is almost great, raw and engrossing and packed with a powerful central performance from esteemed character actor Raymond J. Barry. His The Illusionist is the film that many tried to compare with The Prestige simply because they both were about magic and featured A-List stars, and it grows with each viewing. The Lucky Ones is one of those ‘slipped through the cracks’ quality dramas that will eventually find a nice little audience of its own. Interesting movies all but just a little too rough around the edges for the masses. Which is why I am a huge fan of Neil Burger and all of those films.
Limitless continues the tradition in fine fashion. It’s well made, filled with interesting ideas, and just odd enough so that it’llonce again prevent Neil Burger from becoming a Hollywood darling. This is also the first film in which the director did not have a [credited] hand in writing, though he makes up for it in visual flourish and once again expands his repertoire as he has with each new effort.
Based on Alan Glyns’ novel The Dark Fields, Limitless tells the story of Bradley Cooper’s Eddie Morra. He’s a loser, spending the majority of his time coasting on his book deal at the local watering holes. His relationship is falling apart and he hasn’t written page one of the novel he’s been commissioned for. He’s a slacker looking for a shortcut. When we meet him he’s about to jump to his death from his high rise as sounds emanate from within a sealed room indicating that someone is after him. How did he get in this predicament? The film jumps back in time to set us up.
A chance encounter with his ex-brother in-law creates a unique opportunity. The man is a drug dealer cut from a different cloth and in his possession is a pill which will unlock the 80% of the brain we as humans don’t use. Desperate, Morra takes it and receives the shortcut he so desperately craved. The world takes on new meaning as Morra is able to write brilliant prose, think steps ahead of everyone else, and see the weaknesses in the structure of mankind’s systems. In the span of one night his entire life changes though now that the effects of the pill have worn off he must get back to his dealer to secure long term success and untold possibilities. The bother in-law winds up dead by an assassin’s bullet and though Morra escapes with a stash of pills and cash, he has a finite amount of the drug and a question mark regarding who is looking for the pills and what Pandora’s Box he’s opened. Additionally, there are side effects of the drug that he’s only scratched the surface of in his comedowns.
The story bounces around as it tries to weave a few interesting but divergent plotlines together. There’s the romance between Morra and Abbie Cornish’s Lindy. There’s Morra’s burgeoning potential career under the wing of the Power Elite’s main man Carl Van Loon [Robert De Niro]. There’s the story of the secret organization who made the pills and their tendrils around every corner, reaching towards Eddie. And there’s the tale of a man showing us how to unravel the rules one by one with his newfound powers. It’s a lot to juggle and the film loses its way when it decides to focus on the subplot involving Van Loon since by the time they meet Eddie’s already working the system to his whims. When it clicks it really clicks and it’s hard not to which for the story to focus on the human mind’s limitations and the interesting ways it can be used when opened to full effectiveness. Sometimes the film chooses to adhere to a more formulaic structure at the expense of the ideas only touched upon.
Luckily Burger keeps things moving pretty well, getting a mostly effective and charismatic performance from Bradley Cooper. He’s not a leading man yet but he holds his own and it’s surprising how much mileage the film gets from the bright sparkle of his unfairly blue eyes. By downplaying them during the early scenes and when Morra’s jonesing for another dose the eyes are subdued and kept at a distance. When the synapses are really firing the director comes in close and the electricity is apparent in how much more alive Cooper’s face is with the eyes at full sheen. De Niro seems to be phoning another performance in but as the film progresses he gains some momentum and delivers decent work. It’s still a role hundreds could have played effectively. Cornish is fine in her role but the real standout in the film is the surprising Andrew Howard as the Russian thug who finds his way into Eddie’s life. Going from insanely dangerous and intense to darkly comic, the actor steals most of the scenes he’s in.
Additionally, there’s a delightfully old school but somewhat stunning visual sense to the scenes both where Eddie is experiencing the highs of the drug as well as its confusing after effects. Impossible zooms and multiple exposures are delivered in a way that seems new yet not overt or manipulative. Burger sometimes gets caught up in style but never so much that the film becomes leaden or synthetic. It works.
Overall the film is a near hit. There are some nice moments and the story oftentimes pushes to the edge of being transcendent only to fall into the rut of the dramatic trappings of a thriller or romance. At times, even the borderline science fiction elements. It’s never not entertaining and it leaves one wondering how effective it could have been it was more aggressive or shed a subplot. As it stands though nearly every character is very difficult to like [our leading man starts off as a slacker and only gets worse as the story progresses] and there’s a feeling of a kitchen sink mentality, Neil Burger’s made an interesting and complex little sleeper of a movie.
Limitless has some limitations but I’m finding it difficult not to recommend it. It’s a good little flick.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars