Movie about "smart pill" takes dumb plot turns

Wed Mar 16, 2011 2:42am EDT

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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - "Limitless" should be so much smarter than it is.

The movie is about a down-and-out guy who takes a "smart pill," then can instantly write a book in four days, learn a language in hours and run rings around lawyers, criminals and financial advisers. He's a Mega-brain on steroids, a Superman for the Information Age. He is also a comic reflection of a cultural shift in American perceptions of masculinity that is beginning to value a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs more than a Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. Alas, the filmmakers don't use him very smartly.

The protagonist is well played by Bradley Cooper, who performs the transformations with aplomb, yet once the movie turn him into a Mega-brain its makers can't quite figure out what to do with him: Do we want him to be funny or serious? First the movie puts him through a few financial magic tricks that look like an audition for "Wall Street 3." After this, it throws him into a routine paranoid action-thriller. Disappointing.

Not so disappointing, though, that Relativity Media won't see some smart money heading its way once the movie opens Friday. Cooper goes into overdrive in a performance that makes a script by the estimable Leslie Dixon ("Outrageous Fortune") and quirky direction by Neil Burger ("The Illusionist") seem better than they are.

A New York author named Eddie Morra (Cooper) is faced with monumental "writer's block" -- i.e., he hasn't written a single word of a novel long overdue -- then gets a sweet goodbye from his long-suffering girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish). By chance, he runs into his ex-brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth). Always a slick hustler, this Mephistopheles is pushing a new, unregulated drug called NZT. Naturally, he gives Eddie a sample.

This particular pharmaceutical allows Eddie access to 100 percent of his brain. The movie perhaps overstates the possibilities here by giving the "addict" not only a phenomenal ability to learn and retain data but also a sixth sense that lets him anticipate future events, have knowledge he would not yet possess, a charisma his old self lacked and even newfound martial-arts abilities, the latter from memories of Bruce Lee movies!

Okay, a few exaggerations, but you cut the movie some slack and see how this plays out. The effect apparently wears off in a day, so Eddie gets back with his supplier for more pills. The trouble is the supplier is somewhat indisposed -- another client in an even more acute situation has murdered him and tossed his apartment looking for more pills. Fortunately, Eddie is able to find the entire drug stash -- interestingly enough, without benefit of a smart pill -- enough for many, many months.

In no time, "enhanced Eddie" has dashed off his novel, speaks Italian to a maitre d', sleeps with every girl he desires and amasses a fortune playing the stock market. His girlfriend now wants him back and a mega-mogul, Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro) -- gotta love that name -- brings him aboard to mastermind a huge corporate merger.

Burger tries all kinds of visual trickery to imagine the hyper flow of information into a highly receptive brain: When Eddie is writing, letters fall from the ceiling; multiple Eddies are seen performing tasks; flattering light gently bathes Eddie's face; and, in the most inventive yet strangely unsuccessful gimmick, the camera appears to rush through Manhattan streets, gobbling up blocks within seconds.

Obviously, there are going to be side effects to such persistent and strenuous use of a brain's synapses. But the movie takes a couple of hard right turns before getting to those side effects. First the author oddly switches careers by becoming the overnight wonder boy of Wall Street, a turn that brings the movie to a near halt with computer day trading, conferences with brokers, meetings with Van Loon and a litany of data and flow charts that stops just short of power-point presentations.

Then gangsters and stalkers begin to shadow Eddie. A Russian goon (Andrew Howard) never feels like the right sort of villain for this kind of movie -- and he isn't -- while the stalker turns out a more reliable bad guy but comes into play too late in the movie to be effective.

Police also dog Eddie, whom they suspect of murdering a young model -- an element that feels like a desperate attempt to up the suspense ante. The consequence of this obsession with genre material is that potentially fruitful plot elements such as Eddie's newfound relationship with Libby and his confrontation with an ex-wife (Anna Friel), who suffers from the after-effects of prolonged NZT use, get tossed aside.

Well, filmmakers tell the stories they want to tell, but here those choices compromised the movie by their insistence on sticking to known genre elements rather than letting this Faust tale takes a more natural, uncharted course. Russian gangsters and Wall Street crooks are so tired by now. Furthermore, why would an artist take such a career detour anyway? A hot-shot author throwing off best-sellers every few months and claiming an ungodly celebrity status would not only have been more interesting but more logical to boot.

Cooper does deliver the goods, nonetheless, while Cornish and Friel's solid work goes underappreciated. There is a glimmer of an interesting character twist in Howard's goon who becomes shrewder in his criminality when he ingests the smart pill, but this is never fully developed.

In fact, if the filmmakers were so determined to stick with a thriller, why didn't the writer and goon discover common ground in a rewarding collaboration rather than indulge in a bloody showdown you can see in any number of crude genre movies?

Cinematographer Jo Willems deserves credit for trying to shake things up with an inventive visual plan. Ditto that for Patrizia von Brandenstein's wide-ranging production design from a miserable Chinatown flat to Mexican Riviera glory homes and a high-security Manhattan loft.

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