Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Limitless Opportunities

When it comes to choosing films to watch, sometimes it's not about what film you want to see most, but what you're stuck with when all is said and done. If I'd had my way, I probably would have used this morning to see The Lincoln Lawyer, Matthew McConaughey's thriller that hearkens back to his amazing performance in A Time to Kill. I also want to see the adaptation of classic Bronte novel Jane Eyre, and I've been looking forward to Tom McCarthy's latest indie film Win Win for some time now. But, due to no good showings of Lawyer, as well as Eyre and Win Win not making it to my preferred theaters as of yet (soon, I hope), I was left with fewer choices than I would have preferred. Stuck between films I've seen, films I've never heard of, and films I have no inclination to see, I decided to settle on a title in which I had at least a small  interest. Limitless I think surprised many when it went #1 at the box office this past weekend, and the film boasted of its star power in the rising Bradley Cooper and Hollywood icon Robert De Niro. Still, the trailer to me seemed a little weak, with what seemed like an interesting idea doubtlessly bogged down by convention and normalcy, despite it's sky-reaching goals.

Hey, Cooper looks like my 2010, only more greasy.
Based on the 2001 novel The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn and directed by Neil Burger, Limitless introduces the viewer to Eddie Morra (Cooper), a hopeless writer at the lowest point of his life. He lives in a crappy apartment, his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) has just left him, and to top it off, he is in danger of losing his book contract because he cannot frame a single sentence. When fate introduces him to new experimental wonder drug, NZT-48, his life is changed. NZT-48 allows one who takes it to access 100% of their brain functionality, as opposed to most of us who at most can reach about twenty. Eddie goes from zero to hero faster than an episode of Queer Eye, dropping his slovenly looks, finishing his book and making gobs of dough through the stock market. It isn't long though before his action is threatened by the limited supply of the drug, it's revealing side effects, unscrupulous mobsters and crooked Wall Street goons, led by Street legend Carl Van Loon (De Niro).

Obviously nobody ever told Eddie to not take money from Russian gangsters
Where the film succeeds is showing us how easy it can be for the desperate to cling to anything, ANYTHING, when they are at their most downtrodden. Even though Eddie is competent and sane enough to know that taking an illegal drug is probably not a good idea, once he gets that good feeling coursing through his system he's helpless against it's power. That it allows him to be arguably the best person he can be is almost irrelevant when you factor in all the trouble that brings him. In fact, this film might be seen by many as anti-drug, even going into the hazards of overdosing. Not all the film's details match this hypothesis, however, and in the end the moral of the story is muddled and unclear.

De Niro attempts to wow Cooper with his Taxi Driver skills
And that's Limitless's problem: we're not sure what to make of this tale of sometimes morals and drug dependence. On one hand, Eddie is anything if not a sympathetic character. Even when on his binges, he never does anything I would think of as WRONG. Instead he is practically dragged from conflict to bloody conflict, almost never actively making a move unless coerced, by drug or otherwise. On the other hand, he somehow seems to be addicted to this substance, even if it steadily brings him more trouble. So what's the point of it all? The script doesn't offer any answers to these thoughts, or even the questions asked in its own story. For instance, if 100% of someone's brain is activated by this drug, how in the hell does this guy not think that borrowing money from a Russian mobster (Andrew Howard) is a bad idea? This and other banal problems have no place in the unique realm that this drug is supposed to produce, and yet there you are.

Wishing he had a bigger window
I probably would have walked out of the theater if it hadn't been for the acting talent on display. You might at first accuse Cooper of playing the same kind of playboy he appears to be in many of his films, but in Limitless he actually plays two distinct editions of Eddie Morra. As the "classic" starving artist, Cooper realistically portrays the depression and frustration of being an unaccomplished writer in the world's greatest city. For Eddie's "enhanced special edition", Cooper can be the more confident, affable and charming performer we're used to, which I'm sure is much less of a challenge. Still, his overall ability is rightfully the mainstay of the entire film, and anybody else in the role would have simply felt wrong. Abbie Cornish is slowly turning herself into a genuine superstar, and while smallish parts like her romantic interest role will only help so much, they WILL help if she treats them as seriously as she does here. She's obviously immensely talented, and it would have been nice to see a larger role created for her. She's not the only waste of talent, however. It seems Burger can be lumped in with a multitude of directors who don't know what to do with Robert De Niro in his later years. De Niro is as gravelly and posturing as he can possibly be, but it doesn't make up for the fact that his character is a fairly useless one. Seriously, I kept waiting for Van Loon to become relevant over the course of the story, but the film's biggest fallacy is the idea that they would do anything interesting with this star. Some stronger performances belonged to an unrecognizable Anna Friel as Eddie's ex-wife and Andrew Howard as the film's real human villain.

Cue green screen... and go!
Limitless would probably work fine as a P.S.A. to keep kids from doing drugs if it had managed to fall on that side of the moral spectrum. Instead, it lionizes a drug's effects and seems to indicate that we all might benefit from a bit of chemical help to be our best. That seems like a dangerous philosophy to adopt, and even taking The Gospel of Uncle Benjamin into account, it's an idea tough to justify within the parameters set by the story. But that's beside the point when the film doesn't do enough with the great ideas it puts forward. Far too conventional to take advantage of an otherwise interesting story, Limitless debuts rather low at #8 for 2011. It had the potential to be something; it could have been a contender. Instead it will meet an early exit by the end of next month at the latest.

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