Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Scientists have been assuring us for years that we use only about 10 to 20 per cent of our brain. What if you could mobilize more than 80 per cent of your mind to solve your problems? Would you be happier? More productive? "The Illusionist" director Neil Burger and "Mrs. Doubtfire" scenarist Leslie Dixon explore this 'what if' premise in witty but speculative saga "Limitless" (***1/2 out of ****), based on Irish novelist Alan Glynn's 2001 techno-thriller "The Dark Fields." Some of the details have changed during the transition from page to screen, but the imaginative plot remains reasonably intact. When an aspiring novelist afflicted with writer's block resorts to an experimental opiate—kind of like Adderall--that enables him to not only finish his novel ahead of time but also emerge as a savant of sorts, he discovers addiction may be the least of his woes. This out-of-the- ordinary futuristic murder mystery about a slacker who learns that the sky is no longer the limit generates considerable charisma throughout its nimble 104 minutes because leading man Bradley Cooper makes the hero sympathetic despite his sardonic personality. A couple of movies about men who acquired higher brain power through either pharmaceuticals or surgery have been made, including "The Lawnmower Man" (1992) with Pierce Brosnan and "Charly" (1968) with Cliff Robertson. In both of these movies, the protagonists were mentally challenged, but the "Limitless" leading man isn’t handicapped. Instead, he is a hopeless procrastinator who lacks the ability to focus his energy and efforts to complete tasks in a timely manner. The odyssey that our hero embarks on puts "Limitless" in the same offbeat category as the Brad Pitt & Edward Norton movie "Fight Club" with its innovation use of computer generated imagery. Burger uses the CGI here primarily to reflect the paranoid-inducing impact of the drug, but he doesn't flaunt it to the extremes of most contemporary melodramas.

“Limitless” opens with our protagonist dramatically poised on the ledge of his ultra-high-rise Manhattan apartment as he contemplates performing a header into the street hundreds of feet below. A group of Neanderthal thugs are trying to break down the door to his super-secure apartment because he has something that they want. They are prepared to kill him without a qualm and he can do nothing to stop them. Eddie Mora (Bradley Cooper of “The Hangover”) takes a jaundiced view of his predicament and then he explains how he wound up in this tight spot as “Limitless” shifts gears into flashback mode. In the beginning, Eddie was an author who landed a book contract. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to conjure up a single sentence. No matter how long he stares at his computer, he cannot get his creative juices to flow. Eddie’s girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish of “Sucker Punch”) decides that she would be better off without him and they split. Not only does she get a better job, but also she has grown tired of footing their bills. Our unhappy protagonist is wandering the streets when he runs into his former brother-in-law, Vernon (Johnny Whitworth of “Empire Records”), and they grab a drink at a bar. Vernon tells Eddie that he is no longer a small potatoes drug dealer. Indeed, he works for a pharmaceutical firm that has developed an $800-a-pop miracle pill called NZT-84. Vernon adds that the drug is on the verge of receiving FDA approval.

Initially, Eddie is leery of Vernon’s hype, but he decides to try it. Presto! Eddie polishes off his book, and his prose blows his editor’s mind. Eddie asks Vernon for some more, but somebody kills him before our hero can get the pills. Nevertheless, Eddie finds Vernon’s stash, borrows thousands from a Russian mobster, Gennady (Andrew Howard of “Revolver”) and parlays it into an overnight fortune. Eddie’s exploits bring him to the attention of a legendary Wall Street tycoon, Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro of “Goodfellas”), and our hero helps him acquire even more millions. Eddie even wins back Lindy, but he cannot get the Russian off his back. The Russian gets a taste of the drug and wants more. Moreover, another mysterious man is tailing Eddie everywhere, and this ruffian doesn’t mind wielding a knife to get what he wants. Suddenly, everything good that happened to Eddie turns really bad. At one point, he collapses in Lindy’s office and explains what has happened to him. Eddie has exhausted his stash of NZT and he needs Lindy to get him some more from a stash in her apartment in a sea shell. Lindy agrees and then realizes that the knife-wielding man is following her. When she tries to stall him with the help of two husky guys in Central Park, the knife man stabs them both. Frantically, Lindy calls Eddie on her cell phone from a hiding place as the knife man scours the terrain to find her. Eddie instructs her to take a pill. Despite deep misgivings, Lindy gobbles one and experiences the sharp high and outsmarts her dangerous assailant by leading him down to a ice-skating ring and using the blade on a skating shoe to slash him and then flee.

"Limitless" describes the exciting arc that Eddie traverses in his journey from ‘nobody’ status to ‘somebody’ status. Typically, this kind of materialistic movie degenerates into a heavy-handed Faustian morality play. In other words, the hero experiences a meteoric rise, only to suffer the consequences of a tragic downfall. The downfall occurs because he relinquishes his power to control his destiny. Meaning, at some point, he sells out for the short term and pays for it with his life in the long term. John Travolta made a similar movie, "Phenomenon" (1996), where he manifested mental powers beyond anything he had experienced. The toll that these powers exacted ended up killing him. He was no more irresponsible than the "Limitless" hero. Nevertheless, Hollywood rules dictated that the Travolta character had to perish. The people who made "Limitless" don't subscribe to this mentality. Bradley Cooper's heroic character fares much better that the John Travolta character. Although our hero boasts mental powers beyond anything that anybody else has, Eddie refuses to abuse his gift and "Limitless" allows him to reap the rewards. Indeed, he winds up enjoying the last laugh on villainous Robert De Niro. Mind you, this represents De Niro’s best work since “The Score” in 2001. Happily, Burger and Dixon use Eddie’s rambling voice-over commentary to deliver lots of humor, a technique that only Martin Scorsese usually gets away with in his mafia movies. Burger stages a bravura subway fight scene and intercuts it with footage of martial arts superstar Bruce Lee. Altogether, "Limitless" qualifies as an incredibly original film about our prescriptive, self-medicating society that goes where most Hollywood movies don’t dare!