Film Review: Limitless

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The Ultimate Trip

(Limitless, Neil Burger, US, 2011, 104 mins)

[Warning: This review discusses key plot points]

“Better keep yourself clean and bright;” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “you are the window through which you must see the world.” Not a bad quote to use when considering the iridescent universe of Bradley’s Cooper’s Technicolor polymath; a down at heel writer with a history of alcoholism, whose dull, matt existence, rendered in drab tones, is given some visual kick when he pops a neuro-steroid that turns him into a bright eyed genius.

With the grime washed away, Cooper’s window allows him to see very clearly indeed. NZT, the experimental pill that emancipates the everyman from his shortcomings, is a key that unlocks that stockpile of long redundant material we’ve accrued over our lifetime. Not only that, but this wonderdrug, its only drawback being terminal side effects, hotwires the brain to an evolution trumping level of efficiency, giving the addict the ability to realise his or her full potential.

That’s the pitch at least. The filmmakers have sold this to critics as an aspirational thriller; a movie about a man with “a thirst for success” and success, as ever, is judged strictly in financial terms. Eddie Morra, described in the production notes as a “sad sack writer”, wastes no time junking his literary ambitions once his IQ skyrockets to a reputed four figures. Perhaps the presumption was that the audience wouldn’t understand why a man with pretentions to creativity would wish to explore them, once he had the nous to do so.

The unquestioned assumption that structures Limitless, in what feels like blowback from the Eighties, is that wealth and influence are the only commodities an aspiring audience will understand. Morra might have used his new insight, a universal understanding of human agency, to write the greatest literature the world had ever known, becoming a Super-Tolstoy. Such a man could contribute to the richness of culture like no one before him; that would be his gift to the rest of us and presumably, such a man, in our instant, global culture, would be quickly recognised and rewarded for his talents.

Even if Morra had considered junking literature, perhaps because he was clever enough to know that he had nothing to say, or no desire to share it, a man with a four figure IQ could, were he so minded, diversify into other areas to benefit mankind. As I watched Cooper’s brain making millions on the stock market and setting up his ascension into politics, I found myself making a list of everything a man with his intellect could be doing. The list included finding a cure for cancer, plotting a formula for world peace, devising a cost effective way to make interplanetary space travel a reality, thereby immeasurably extending mankind’s frontiers and understanding of the universe, and solving the global energy crisis. In the event, money and power seem to be enough for Morra, and the movie, perhaps having no idea what goals would unite the home crowd, remains tight-lipped on the character’s intensions. It’s not so different from a real trip, in that it’s a lot of energy and talk expended, with a few abstract ideas about intent thrown in, for no discernable purpose.

Morra’s lack of altruism and, curiously, imagination, aren’t the only problems that writer Leslie Dixon fails to solve. Driven by the necessity to have the newly mind-minted Morra in jeopardy, in a bid to sustain audience interest, she has no answer to the question, why would a man with a four figure IQ draw so much attention to his gifts when he has connections to a man who’s been murdered by shadowy figures trying to recover the drug? Okay, he hires bodyguards and purchases an $8m fortified apartment once the threat gets close but wouldn’t a genius find out who and what he was dealing with before he took down his trousers and starting swinging his dick in public?

Equally strange is Eddie’s assertion that he’s a perfect version of himself. To be fair, Burger is sensible enough to keep this as an open question. The potential down side of the drug is sometimes flaunted, though never developed. As he ups the dosage, Morra starts to lose time and there’s a strong suggestion that he may have murdered a woman after an all-nighter in a hotel room.

Dull Eddie was horrified to find his ex-brother in law shot dead on a sofa but the enhanced version quickly recovers from the notion that he may have killed an innocent in hedonistic rapture. A later scene, involving girlfriend Lindy, played by a sedate Abbie Cornish, underlines the point. She takes NZT to plot her escape from one of the film’s nameless villains, and slashes him with the business end of a girl’s ice skate, rather than opting for a less violent solution. In both instances the movie plays with the idea that too much confidence might be dangerous; a world in which the super intelligent can no longer empathise with their inferiors. This, one imagines, would be the textbook definition of sociopathic behaviour.

Dubious values and undercooked philosophy aside, Limitless is an engaging and often good-humoured trip that moves at quite a lick and benefits from being directed with some flair. Bradley Cooper, confidently breaking away from the safety of the ensemble movies that made his name, gives a strong, modulated performance as both the waster and the wunderkind. There’s fine support from Robert De Niro, whose unfortunately named Gecko clone, Van Loon, showcases some of the mischief and menace of his classic turns, and the film’s best scenes are those in which the old hand and young pretender spar and jostle for primacy.

Such a scene ends the movie with a crowd pleasing aside, in which Cooper’s Senator in waiting demonstrates that he’s beyond the reach of special interests. It’s a neat conclusion but it isn’t clear what this check and balance proof human is going to do when he reaches the top. We’ve as much reason to fear him as to like him and only have his word that his intentions are positive, not least because he’s acted selfishly throughout the entire story.

Ambiguity’s welcome of course but the risk is that Morra’s journey can ultimately be judged to be baseless and self-indulgent. I suppose when it comes to audience identification there is, contrary to the title’s suggestion, a limit.

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