Limitless (2011)

09 April 2011

Given that its starting premise involves a down-and-out writer who takes a pill that allows him to “access one hundred percent” of his own brain, it’s mildly alarming that Limitless is set for the large part in the corporate end of Manhattan, an area and subject matter that might in the current climate demand more serious attention.

To their ultimate credit though, director Neil Burger and scriptwriter Leslie Dixon (from Alan Glynn’s 2004 novel The Dark Fields) seem aware of the film’s own limitations, and decide to veer clear of any real dramatic seriousness. As such, the film has charm but not much dynamic, and if its makers don’t do a great deal with their material, it’s still enjoyable fun.

When Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) first takes the experimental drug NZT 48, a whole new world opens up both to him and to us: as he is able to acquire knowledge of language and music at an almost supernatural speed, so for us Jo Willems’s hitherto grey and muted cinematography becomes rosy and saturated, impressing us with some impossible zooms that give the impression of entering Manhattan’s endlessly navigable space.

In the first instance, the montages of Eddie acquiring new skills, with him explaining to us in voice-over his new capabilities, unfolds like some commercial for NZT 48 itself; in the second, the cinematography lures us into this fantastical world very well: when the drug first wears off and Eddie begins to suffer withdrawal, the return of a more naturalistic visual palette makes us yearn for a new pill as much as Eddie does.

Because the concept of accessing one’s brainpower to the extent Eddie does becomes ridiculous once you rationally consider its implications, the film becomes an interesting take on the superhero film, delivered with the kind of logical development at which Ealing comedies such as Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Man in the White Suit (1951) excelled.

Under the influence, Eddie becomes almost invincible, able as he is not only to recall long-forgotten moves seen in a Bruce Lee movie, but also to utilise them at a crucial moment. As a result, the film’s main dramatic thrust becomes about Eddie’s finite supply of drugs; as he gets in over his head, the demand for more drugs is heightened.

Indeed, even if the film carries a cautionary undercurrent concerning the ethical issues surrounding performance-enhancement or even the outright woes of drug addiction, because the narrative exercises the benefits of point-of-view (Eddie narrates the film through flashback), we find ourselves cheering for the protagonist’s continued drug use, especially when opposite Robert De Niro’s ruthless mogul Carl Van Loon or Andrew Howard’s thuggish loan shark Gennady.

It might be a shame that in order to serve its arc, the film begins with a character who in the course of his development must deal with the likes of Gennady or Van Loon. Just as he impresses the latter by turning $100,000 into $2 million in an extremely short time period, for instance, he fails to remember to pay the former back, an obvious hole in a character who is now otherwise immune to such shortcomings in thought.

Obvious or not, though, it sends the film into a violent farce. Tellingly, another strand of the plot sees Eddie’s girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) pursued in Central Park by a relentless henchman, who wants the drugs she has moments before retrieved for Eddie. Lindy is forced into taking a pill so as to allow rationality reign in a time of crisis; more violence ensues – even if in the latter instance it’s in an unlikely form.

It’s almost as if violence is endemic to a tale of this sort. Maybe it is, given the type of characters a “drugs story” demands in order to allow for a suspension of disbelief. But when you consider that the more enjoyable aspects of Limitless are those in which white collared know-it-alls are outshone by a drugged-up underdog, you wonder what other kinds of stories could be told about chemical alteration… Vincent McEveety’s The World’s Strongest Man (1976) and Joseph McGrath’s similar Digby: The Biggest Dog in the World (1973) come to mind, to name just two.

(Spoilers ahead…) Limitless contains a “one year later” coda in which Eddie is a US senator with fancies for president. Not only is he the top dog, he’s also well liked by everyone; it seems an especially outrageous turn of events in the context of what has gone before. But it carries a kind of fantasy with it too, one that actually resembles the final moments of The King of Comedy (1983). The similarity is magnified when De Niro’s Van Loon returns to serve Eddie his would-be comeuppance. But in The King of Comedy, the “is it real or isn’t it” final stand-up performance by De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin is short enough to remain ambiguous. In contrast, Limitless stays around long enough for Eddie to outwit De Niro and finally suggest the merits and potential of NZT are endless.