Review by John E. Rogers
Movies about super-smart guys stumble when the main characters do dumb things. And yet do dumb things they must, or we end up with a very short feature. In a way, they’re jinxed from the get-go. To keep the audience involved in the story, the film makers must seed the movie with subtle signals about plot turns, character reveals, and story paths. But to maintain the aura of hyper-intelligence surrounding the protagonist, they must continually show that he is waaaay ahead, seeing everything, putting it all together. He therefore should be getting all our clues, too, and constructing elaborate plans to avoid the disasters we viewers know are coming. Yet if he avoids them, where is the conflict?
We end up with films where the main character is smart about most things, but not others, or has story-anchored lapses in function, or is plagued by emotional flaws or ancillary responsibilities (dead-weight characters are often used) that compromise his reasoning or his capacity to act.
So it is with the highly, if at times guiltily, entertaining Limitless. Think of it as Wall Street meets Phenomenon.
There are plenty of dumb (sometimes very dumb) moments, but they are more than offset by the picture’s candor and energy.
Seriously down-in-the-dumps writer Eddie Morra (Mr. Piercing Eyes himself, Bradley Cooper) is given a hit of a secret experimental drug called NZT by his shady former brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth, of CSI: Miami, in top form). Vernon promises that the drug will solve all his problems, permitting him to use not just 20% of his brain, but all of it.
Figuring he has nothing left to lose, Eddie downs the small transparent tablet.
NZT acts like a mental turbo-charger. It immediately expands Eddie’s consciousness to nearly its dizzying breaking point. From a practical standpoint, it allows him to finish his novel, make a killing in the stock market, learn several foreign languages practically overnight, and patch things up with his former girlfriend (Charlize Theron look-alike Abbie Cornish).
But, as you might guess, NZT comes with some mighty severe side effects.
At first, if Eddie misses a hit, he merely crashes, losing his super-brains and almost pathological drive. Later, though, after his body and mind become hooked, the repercussions of stopping worsen exponentially. Equally unsettling is the way NZT starts to mess with his mind. It plays dangerous tricks with his sense of time, causing lengthy blackouts.
Eddie’s meteoric rise in the business world, sudden encyclopedic knowledge, blazing wit, and wild partying are like a fireworks show. People can’t help but notice. Eventually, of course, he lands on the respective radar screens of an envious and delightfully sadistic Russian mobster (the superb Andrew Howard), a silent and relentless hit man (Tomas Arana) trying to locate the original batch of NZT Vernon stole, and a vicious corporate heavy-hitter (Robert De Niro) looking to use Eddie’s almost supernatural skills to make the biggest merger in history.
The film proceeds from this position exactly as one expects, with all of the usual developments of the sub-genre coming at just about stopwatch-precise intervals.
What elevates this material isn’t the idea, which is neat but essentially routine, or even director Neal Burger’s execution, which is unusually daring and creative, with the touches of Run Lola Run in evidence. No, it’s Morra’s voice. You see, he provides a first person monologue throughout the film. Usually this is a major no-no, a feeble device used by the stupid for info-dumps, or by the lazy to cut plot-corners.
But it can work if it’s played just right. Take, for instance, Croupier, the noirish 1998 near-classic from British director Mike Hodges. Clive Owen’s Jack Manfred delivers a profoundly disturbing semi-sociopathic narration that will live forever in film history.
There is a similarity between Manfred’s voice-over and Morra’s. Both are sharply honest. But where Manfred’s seethed with cold predatory detachment, Morra’s radiates tragicomic self-awareness.
Kudos to longtime industry scripter Leslie Dixon for distilling that voice so perfectly from Alan Glynn’s novel, The Dark Fields, and to the underrated Cooper for rising to the occasion.
Bottom line: The film’s worth seeing. The final glorious scene, between Morra and De Niro’s tough-as-nails tycoon Carl Van Loon, is alone worth the price of admission.
U.S. Release Date: March 18, 2011
Director: Neal Burger
Screen writer: Leslie Dixon (from the novel The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn)
Running Time: 105 minutes