Limitless (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Limitless (2011)

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Right there in the opening scenes of Limitless lay a struggle that I can relate too all too well.  Eddie (Bradley Cooper) is struggling to find the spark of creation and start writing his book.  In the midst of all this, in what must be the cleanest breakup on film, Lindy (Abbie Cornish) turns in her keys because he's a mooch and clearly stalled.  Then a drug, NZT-48, pops into his life that makes him utilize more of his brain and suddenly he's able to seduce any woman he comes across.

So what else does a guy in his position do but try to get back the woman he loves?  Then when the mooch suddenly speaks seven languages and can play classical piano with the best, what kind of woman would refuse him?  We don't learn the answer to the second question because once Eddie has his hands on the memory enhancing wonder drug he's able to bring any woman he wants into his life without question.

What we have in Limitless is a somewhat altered take on the old film Charly (or the story Flowers For Algernon for those who read it in the seventh grade).  But instead of Charly where the titular character is altered in both metal capacity and personality, Eddie of Limitless is just altered mentally.  He's the same ambitious guy before he takes the drug as he is after he takes the drug, just able to worm his way into and out of trouble a lot better.

I liked the early transition scenes best and could have done without the thriller elements. Eddie was already conflicted enough before guns and knives were involved.

The shades of the thriller pop their way in early with the shady introduction of NZT-48 via Eddie's ex step-brother Vernon (Johnny Whitworth).  Vernon entices Eddie with the prospect of limitless mental potential, soon after Eddie is hooked and sees that Vernon is beaten up badly, and (wouldn't you know it?) Eddie finds Vernon dead shortly thereafter.  So Eddie takes the drugs, decides that book writing is suddenly beneath him, and becomes the wunderkind sexual Capitalistic uberman described lovingly in the previous paragraphs (he's still a pretty good man).

There's an enticing layer of Limitless that deals with what the drug actually does.  It's a memory enhancer, enabling the user to access parts of their unconscious for facts that they may have only seen briefly years ago.  An interesting layer of pathos develops in this with director Neil Burger's stylistic execution as important lines from Eddie's past overlap with his present and he has to focus on which is more important.  Emotionally, what does it mean if you can recall events of your life with such perfect detail in between the spaces of a breath?  An idea only briefly touched on, but I enjoyed that the film even bothered.

Another fascinating notion, one of the big arguments against functional physical immortality (which our generation might not be able to see but is becoming a scary possibility) is how our brains would be able to process so many memories after a certain point.  Limitless provides an interesting answer to this, putting Eddie on autopilot over the course of many nights while his brain goes about controlling the body without the troublesome burden of consciousness.  An unsettling concept, considering you'd still be fully yourself without ever really recalling what makes you.

As interesting as these ideas are Limitless mostly uses them as boilerplate thriller fodder.  Eddie has blackouts so that there can be a murder plot thrown in (which, curiously enough, the movie also forgets to resolve).  Emotional issues are null because his two past loves only function to show how much he's changed and the full effects of withdrawl from the drug.  Then Robert De Niro shows up and since his presence in anything these days signals some kind of plot twist we wait.  And wait.  Then grow frustrated as he barely emotes through another scene.  Finally the twist strikes and it's so predictable we begin to wonder why the casting director even bothered with him.

Wonderful speech from his lifetime achievement award aside, I wish that De Niro would give one last real hurrah into the art side of himself and less what the people want for entertainment.

Limitless is a bit of a mess.  I like the connotation between personal enhancement as a way of experiencing a deeper connection with other people.  But that and just about every other idea in the film functions more as a way of placing Eddie in danger than posing any real questions about the world.

Earlier this year the excellent Source Code posed difficult questions about science and morality that weren't tossed into a vacuum (and some of the implications are terrifying).  Limitless is more of a fun romp that has more smarts than the average film and is engagingly directed by Burger, who mixes a number of stylistic treats to show Eddie's perception of time and memory.

So Limitless passes, mostly on promise and slightly on entertainment.  I am growing quite weary of the "we only use 20% of our brains" myth though.  One day I hope that someone makes a film about a drug that shows the full implications of allowing us to consciously use 100% of the brain.  It will be a single shot, held for two hours, of a man lying perfectly still as he wills every previously automatic function in his body into precise order, then suffering a full mental collapse when he realizes he has to go to the bathroom.

Limitless isn't that smart, but it'll do until some minimalist director goes with my idea.

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Limitless (2011)

Directed by Neil Burger.
Screenplay by Leslie Dixon.
Starring Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, and Robert De Niro.

Posted by Andrew

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