Cooper Carries, Glows in 'Limitless'
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
No disputing that "logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead" in "Limitless." So don't expect this jiggy little head-trip movie about pharmaceutically enhanced intelligence in the Age of Information to make you larger, wisdom-wise. But Neil Burger ("The Illusionist") deploys this genre mishmash with all the aplomb of a director on speed, while Bradley Cooper puts pedal to the metal in a performance that fast-forwards from schlub to über-Gordon Gekko to Bruce Lee action hero to Teflon politico. Yes, you wish "Limitless" was smarter and sharper about its tantalizing premise (drawn from Alan Glynn's 2001 novel "The Dark Fields"), but be happy that this week's offering of cinematic soma isn't "The Adjustment Bureau" all over again. "Limitless" delivers some pleasurable punch -- and rarely makes you feel small.
Gone to ground in his low-rent man-cave, Eddie Morra (Cooper) can't come up with even the first word of his promised novel about the "plight of the individual in the 21st century." Over-voice (Cooper's crack-wise narration spans the whole movie), he wallows in self-deprecating anecdotes about his loser life. For this puffy-faced, unkempt soul, reality is thick and dim; like most of us, he's mostly unaware of the ocean of data in which he blindly swims, and sinks. Then his ex-brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth, oozing sleaze) pops up to offer our Alice a pill that will make him large, creatively speaking.
It's a Faustian bargain -- but what a bargain! After dropping NZT-48, all the synapses in Eddie's brain fire at once, setting his blue eyes a-blaze ("I was blind, but now I see!"). The whole world lights up, suffused with golden promise. Wide-ranging knowledge, surprise sex appeal, the energy of many Eddies (all of whom pitch in to clean up his pigpen apartment) galvanize our lumpen hero. That puffy face becomes planed, character gives the features new form, and a couple visits to the gym do wonders for the sedentary bod. Words literally drop like manna from heaven as Eddie whips out 40 brilliant pages.
Call the hallucinatory visual effects in "Limitless" hokey if you like, but anyone who's tripped on speed should appreciate the movie's attempts to f/x a faster, hotter, more fecund reality. (Significantly, when unenhanced Eddie flashes back into memory, happy days with his ex-wife Melissa are similarly bathed in warm gold, courtesy of natural serotonin surges.) And when Eddie goes into NZT-48 overdrive, the dark side of drugging comes alive in twitchy temporal and geographical jump-cuts -- from woman to woman, club to hotel to subway brawl -- and disorientingly endless zooms down neon-lit Manhattan streets. The effects aspire to the surreal flavor of Scorsese's bad night-town trip "After Hours."
Morning after, the light's gone out: "I sent a little probe down into my brain, but no surge of brilliance came up to greet me." Jonesing for more of that fantastic mind- and eye-candy, Eddie scores a bagful from his erstwhile dealer's digs after the guy's been brutally murdered. Soon he's borrowing seed money from a Russian gangster and scoring on the stock market, which brings him to the attention of Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro, full of vim and vinegar, playing it straight despite his ludicrous moniker), a corporate mogul poised for a global merger that will make him king of the world.
At this point, a flock of movie genres start flying in every direction. Could be Eddie's murdered someone during a drug OD and the cops are on to him. Withdrawal from NZT-48 causes painful brainlock and potentially fatal crashes -- his ex-wife (Anna Friel, whom we want to see more of), fresh off the stuff, turns up looking about 100 years old -- and someone's just stolen Eddie's last stash. Homicidal types, including that Russian loan shark, chase our guy and his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish, woefully wasted) all over town. Severed hands are delivered, eviscerations threatened. Looks like curtains for Eddie Morra.
And then, no sooner than you can say Nosferatu, we're in a horror movie. Blood, rich and dark as the hem of a satin gown, spreads seductively toward down-and-out Eddie, promising resurrection if only he'll take a little sip. "Limitless" will turn the genre-screw once more, to spike its climactic moments with a delicious homage to "Taxi Driver." Suffice it to say, Travis Bickle, grown old and suffering from a bad heart, meets his match in a politician so savvy, smooth and suave he might be an android ... or a god.
From start to finish, "Limitless" is Bradley Cooper's movie. The "Hangover" dude seems to shape-change before our eyes as he morphs from chinless slacker to colorful con artist to perfectly sculpted Ken doll. But it's this actor's total commitment to whatever role he's playing that gives him a leg up from pretty-boy-with-great-abs to real movie-star status. Smart enough to cast ironic aspersions on his own hunkhood, the charismatic Cooper knows how to work it like a pro.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool.") She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kathleen's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.