In the abject cinematic wasteland of the early calendar months, a surplus of ideas is almost always preferable to a deficit. Neil Burger’s Limitless might be in desperate need of a script doctor, but its lack of strict adherence to genre conventions, its neverending bag of digital editing gimmicks and a handful of memorable sequences help to make it entirely passable late-winter fare.
Its chief problem lies in almost every frame of the film, sometimes more than once: star Bradley Cooper (The Hangover, The A-Team) here graduates to proper leading-man status, but he simply isn’t an ideal choice for Eddie Morra, a grungy, writer’s-block stricken would-be published author. Cooper doesn’t embarrass himself, but his perma-smug features don’t easily lend themselves to a Sympathetic Leading Man figure, let alone a down-on-his-luck “artist.” After running into his ex-wife’s brother (Johnny Whitworth), Eddie is offered an experimental drug that promises to give him unfettered access to his usually-muddled mental processes, effectively making him superhuman – as long as the high lasts. Sure enough, once on the magic drug, he’s able to swiftly amass a small fortune, finish his “grandiose” allegorical sci-fi novel, and work his way back into the life of his perennially disappointed girlfriend (Abbie Cornish, getting some relatively identifiable face-time before she disappears into Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch). Before long, however, he’s provoked the ire of both a Russian loanshark (Andrew Howard) and a shadowy high-finance bigwig (Robert De Niro).
Burger’s direction is slick, foregrounding Cooper’s mostly-perfunctory narration and a constantly shifting sense of time, space and morality, but Limitless is weirdly – almost refreshingly – rough around the edges in many other respects, as though a last round of script revisions were accidentally ignored. Subplots and thematic undercurrents are raised and disregarded at will, entire scenes (particularly the film’s bookends) serve little practical purpose, and the lack of a traditional antagonist makes the whole affair strangely structureless, made plain by the limp ending. Limitless‘s chief virtue is its elusiveness: at heart it’s a skewed superhero origin story, but it throws in elements of mystery, film noir, sci-fi, and old-fashioned chase thrillers, sometimes in the same scene. If a major studio got its hands on the initial treatment for Pi, Limitless might well have been the somewhat muddled result.
Most importantly, though Cooper’s smugness can grate at times (his narration, in particular, borders on the offensively obvious, especially in the opening half-hour), Burger keeps the movie fleet-footed as it flits between genres, and the swift editing helps to mask the script’s needless surfeit of narrative twists and concepts. Individual sequences stand out, too: a snowbound foot chase featuring some unusual problem-solving and a climactic condo skirmish with an almost vampiric twist both work, despite their innate ridiculousness, thanks to Burger’s refreshingly even-keeled camerawork. The support work is solid, too; though De Niro and Cornish are both fine, it’s actually Howard who gets the best (and funniest) material as the brainless thug hiding surprising ambition. He winds up as living proof that, like Limitless, it’s entirely possible to be dumb and smart at the same time.