Visuals and Performances Make Limitless Special!

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One of my favorite definitions of science fiction is the one Roger Ebert provides in his review of Knowing.  To quote Ebert, science fiction “changes one coordinate in an otherwise logical world just to see what might happen.” Limitless explores what happens when a miraculous pill lands in the hands of an ordinary guy and enables him to utilize all of his brain power, as compared to the tiny fraction that’s normally available to human beings. The guy is Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), a struggling writer. Dealing with writer’s block, life in near-poverty, and a successful girlfriend who’s starting to lose interest in him, Eddie doesn’t have a lot going for him.

Enter NZT – an experimental pill given to him by Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), his ex-wife’s shady, smooth-talking brother, after a chance encounter. Figuring he’s got nothing to lose, Eddie gulps down the pill. He starts feeling its effects almost immediately.  The biggest change is that his writer’s block, which has plagued him for weeks, is miraculously gone. Eddie has a book contract and, before NZT, he hadn’t produced a total of 40 words for his manuscript. With NZT, he produces over 40 pages in one night.

His mind racing with thoughts of how NZT can change his life, Eddie seeks out Vernon with hopes of getting more of it. Eddie arrives at Vernon’s posh apartment high above New York. Vernon is willing to provide Eddie with some more NZT – but only if he’ll go out and run a few errands for him first. Eddie is perfectly fine with this arrangement and is more than willing to serve as Vernon’s errand boy going forward, considering that it will be netting him NZT.

But all those thoughts get put on hold, permanently, when Eddie gets back to the apartment and discovers that Vernon has been shot dead and the place has been ransacked. At this point, it becomes abundantly clear to Eddie that Vernon, who was a drug-dealer back during Eddie’s marriage to his sister, wasn’t really the upstanding pharmaceutical consultant he claimed to be and was still involved in illicit activities. Convinced that whoever shot Vernon was there to reclaim the NZT that Vernon likely stole, Eddie scours the apartment in hopes that the assailant missed the NZT stash.

Just when he’s about to give up hope, Eddie spots the oven. It’s one of the few places he hasn’t searched, and he examines it.  As he’s searching around the heating coils, he discovers a compartment underneath them – and, laying inside, wrapped in tin foil, is a plastic bag full of NZT. And there aren’t just 10 or 20 pills. There are hundreds of them.

At the police station, Eddie manages to convince the detective on the case (a nice cameo by Wire alum Brian Anthony Wilson) that he doesn’t know who killed Vernon or why anybody would want him dead. Eventually, Eddie is able to get back to his apartment, bag of NZT in-hand, which he successfully concealed from the police.

Just like that, Eddie’s life starts to turn around. With more NZT, he’s able to finish his book and it turns out brilliantly. This impresses his girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish), who decides that their relationship is worth another shot. As for money, Eddie puts his days of poverty behind him for good once he starts playing the stock market and winning big. Soon, he’s living the life he always dreamed of.

Or so he thinks.

It seems like one really entertaining movie comes out every March. I’m not talking about anything Oscar-caliber, but I am talking about that one March movie people are still talking about by the end of the year – which is an accomplishment in and of itself, considering that said March movie has to contend with summer blockbusters and the Oscar fare of fall/winter to stay relevant. In recent years, this period of time has been dominated by Zack Snyder, with Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen coming out in March and managing to stay relevant until the end of the year. This has led me and others to dub Snyder “Mr. March.”

Once I saw the dazzling trailers for Sucker Punch, replete with shots of colossal robots and Emily Browning’s black undies, I would’ve bet anything that Snyder would live up to his title and deliver this year’s “March movie,” just as he has in years previous.

Well, I was wrong.  Big-time.  Limitless is unquestionably this year’s “March movie.”  It gets the nod over Snyder’s movie not just because Sucker Punch is really bad, but because Limitless is just that good.

One of the strengths of Limitless is the psychological quality of the cinematography (which is often accompanied by impressive visual effects) and the way it places you in Eddie’s shoes as he’s experiencing the effects of NZT. The film’s color palette shifts from dark and washed-out to colorful and saturated when Eddie is on NZT, as if to reflect the inspiration flooding into his mind.  When Eddie writes for the first time on NZT, letters rain down from the ceiling. You know that whatever Eddie’s writing, it’s going to be good. Later, during Eddie’s first foray into playing the stock market, he looks upward at the ceiling tiles in his apartment and they transform into the spinning tiles seen on stock market boards. They disappear one by one until Eddie deduces the company he should invest in.

Director Neil Burger’s penchant for imaginative visuals doesn’t end with depicting Eddie’s surreal experiences on NZT. Burger shoots a simple makeover scene in which Eddie realizes he’s in dire need of a shave and haircut in such a way that it becomes one of the film’s most memorable sequences. Eddie is seated at a salon, gazing into a mirror. The camera is behind Eddie and another mirror is behind the camera. The second mirror reflects into Eddie’s mirror, creating the familiar effect where it looks as if there are an infinite number of mirrors. When the sequence begins, the camera starts moving forward, passing through Eddie’s mirror and each duplicate mirror thereafter. The mirrors become like windows, and Eddie’s appearance changes in each salon the camera passes through. At the start of the sequence, Eddie’s face is scruffy and his shaggy, dirty hair is pulled back into a ponytail; at the end of the sequence, there’s not a trace of stubble on his face and his hair is short, clean, and neatly gelled back.

To me, this scene says a lot about Burger’s dedication to the film. Displaying that level of creativity and artistry on a scene that, otherwise, would be fairly normal tells me that Burger was passionate about the film and took his time to make sure that is was good. Most importantly, through the way he puts you in Eddie’s shoes during NZT trips and his creative treatment of virtually every scene in the movie, Burger proves that it is, indeed, still possible to create an immersive film experience without the use of 3D. In fact, Limitless is more immersive than any 3D film I’ve seen since Avatar. Other Hollywood directors should take note.

If there’s an actor that Hollywood has taken note of lately, it’s Bradley Cooper. Shooting to fame in The Hangover, Cooper’s star has steadily risen ever since. Limitless is a big film for Cooper, because it’s the first one to bank on his star power alone to carry it. Judging by the first place, $19 million opening weekend Limitless enjoyed, I think it’s safe to say Cooper has arrived as one of Hollywood’s leading men.

Cooper’s charisma is his best quality. He’s like a popular kid in school you disliked because he was so popular, but also couldn’t help but like because he was so nice and cool. It’s because of this Eddie is never unlikable in any of the scenes that feature him confidently smiling, waving his arms, and talking up a storm to large groups of people. This role plays to Cooper’s greatest strength. In the hands of another actor, there’s a good chance Eddie would just come across as an arrogant jerk.

(I shudder at the thought of Shia La Beouf playing Eddie. He was the actor originally attached to star in the film).

Playing Eddie’s girlfriend, Lindy, is Abbie Cornish. I must confess I didn’t know much about Cornish prior to March – aside from the fact that, appearance-wise, she’s a pleasing cross between Sigourney Weaver and Charlize Theron. Audiences have certainly gotten to know her face as of late, though, thanks to her starring roles in this film and Sucker Punch. Though her work in Limitless is good, the balance of my praise is for her role instead of her performance. Lindy loves Eddie, but her character is not wholly defined by that relationship. She’s a driven, successful person and feels more like a fully-formed character than most female characters in mainstream films do. Though Lindy doesn’t get as much screen time as I would’ve hoped, it’s a step in the right direction to see a female character in a mainstream film get her own action scene (an engaging sequence in which she pops one of Eddie’s NZT pills to help her slip past one of the film’s antagonists) instead of, ultimately, serving as the damsel-in-distress for the film’s climax.

Rounding out the main cast is Robert De Niro. Much like Bruce Willis, he’s a popular actor whose work has never really struck a chord with me. Some actors are just like that. Also, it doesn’t help that De Niro’s output over the last 15 years has been met with near-universal criticism. Going into Limitless, I suspected De Niro’s role in the film would be similar to the supporting role he played in Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust, a small film that he was probably a part of just for the paycheck.

However, I was pleasantly surprised when De Niro turned out to be the perfect person to play Carl Van Loon, an important New York businessman whose attention Eddie attracts with his success playing the stock market.

The dynamic between Eddie and Carl doesn’t turn overtly antagonistic until the end of the film, but Carl does serve as an interesting foil for Eddie from the very first time they meet. It’s because the two of them rose to prominence in very different ways. Carl points this out to Eddie at one point in the film, and it’s a compelling exchange that reveals how a mere mortal like Carl could end up posing a real threat to a superhuman like Eddie – a possibility the film hadn’t explored up until this point.

In sum, Eddie’s genius is artificial, gifted to him by special pills. Contrastingly, Carl’s genius is something he had to labor for over the course of his life. Carl’s earned everything he’s received and Eddie hasn’t. Accordingly, Carl’s command over his genius is absolute; Eddie’s is not, because it’s something he’s still in the process of discovering. Most importantly, Carl’s genius is something that can’t be taken away, because it was attained naturally. If you take away Eddie’s pills, he’s back to being the loser he was at the beginning of the film.

De Niro is the perfect person to play Carl because he wears his many years of experience on his face. Being a Hollywood veteran, De Niro lends a certain credibility to Carl, who’s a veteran in his own field. There’s a world-weariness, yet underlying ferocity, to Carl that De Niro portrays wonderfully, and I’m guessing it’s because of how De Niro and Carl are both at similar points in their careers and lives.

Limitless showed me that maybe it’s not De Niro I don’t like as much as it’s his choice of roles. Limitless proves that he’s still more than capable of doing good work – it just takes the right role to draw it out of him.

Regarding weaknesses, the glaring one in Limitless is the large amount of peripheral characters outside the principal ones and how they clutter up the film. The film is never really sure what it wants to do with these characters or what roles they’re ultimately playing. Because there are so many peripheral characters, none of them get enough screen time to be properly characterized, leaving them all feeling painfully flat.

The worst of these characters is Gennady (Andrew Howard), a gangster who loans Eddie the money to start investing in the stock market. Gennady eventually starts pursuing Eddie – first, when Eddie doesn’t pay him back the money in a short enough amount of time, and second when he gets a taste of NZT and wants more of it. Seeing Gennady try to match wits with Eddie is a dreadful substitute for seeing the legitimately dangerous Carl do so. Gennady never seems like much more than token opposition to Eddie and he feels sorely out of place in the grand scheme of the film.

Ultimately, I left Limitless feeling like it had something that few other films today do: organic sequel potential. (TRON: Legacy would be the exact opposite of this). Close to the end of the film, Eddie has reason to believe that he’s not the only person using NZT to better his place in the world. Eddie wonders who else is doing the exact same thing he is and how they’re affecting things, on a global scale. It’s an intriguing, scary thought. That thought, along with the political aspirations that Eddie develops at the end of the film, left me feeling that there are more stories to be told within the world of Limitless. Given the film’s success, I really hope we get to see them.

Either way, Limitless stands alone as a fun, engaging science fiction thriller and is the first big surprise of 2011.

Illustration by Derek Wilson