Thursday, March 24, 2011

Jagged Little Pill: LIMITLESS

In Limitless, a down-on-his-luck mostly unemployed guy (a convincing Bradley Cooper) is struggling to fulfill a writing contract that he had signed some months ago. After all this time, he’s still looking at a blank page. (“I know the feeling,” comes the mirthless response from the writers in the audience). He bumps into an old acquaintance (Johnny Whitworth), his ex-brother-in-law actually, who was a minor pill pusher but has now graduated to the majors working for some shady thugs. Anyways, he has a fancy pill that will allow the user to access not just some of the brain, but the entire brain all at once. This is no placebo, in other words. It’s some heavy duty chemical something.

So, this guy takes the pill and decides that he has become a genius. Or, more accurately, he gets really good at mental math and other such activities that simply lean upon having a great memory. Before you know it, he’s an addict, and it seems to be working for him. He becomes an expert pianist, learns several languages, starts and finishes his stalled novel, wins back his recent ex-girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), and lands a job working for a high powered titan of finance (a severely underutilized Robert DeNiro). But with his great powers of great memory carry some great danger. There’s those thugs his pill provider was working for and certain other ominous forces that gather about, waiting around for the third-act twist.

Now, forgive me for getting more intellectual than the movie at hand probably requires, but it was Friedrich Nietzsche who said, “Many a man fails to become a thinker only because his memory is too good.” Thus the plight of Bradley Cooper in Limitless boils down to that of a man who is supposedly the smartest person in the room trapped doing stupid things just to keep the plot pushing forward. He has a great memory, but is hardly a thinker. The thriller itself is far less intelligent than it thinks. It has a good memory, for a while, dutifully paying off its set-ups, but by the end of the film, which leaves at least two murders completely unsolved, it’s clear that the plot’s been in shambles for quite some time. It has a climax, sure, but it never really builds there. By the end, the film even seems to halfheartedly embrace putting a seal of approval on the protagonist’s addiction in an rather off-putting way.

So, I guess the blame for such a thoroughly underwhelming movie can lay at the feet of screenwriter Leslie Dixon, the same person who brought us such achievements as Look Who’s Talking Now, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Pay it Forward. She just can’t whip this killer concept into something manageably entertaining. Lord knows, director Neil Burger tries. He’s a solid director (I’m a big fan of his peculiar, stylistic 2006 film The Illusionist) and here he brings visual energy and even, at times, inventiveness that serves as a nice distraction for a while. I especially liked his handful of computer-assisted zooms that leap out of the realm of the possible and extend to trippier and trippier lengths.

This is a movie that could have easily been very smart but instead veers quickly into the realm of the cluttered and underwhelming. It’s can’t even live up to being a dumb B-movie, but let me go ahead and spoil the strangest, liveliest moment of pure goofiness to be found within the film. At one point, Abbie Cornish is pursued through a park and beats back her attacker by slicing his face with a pair of ice skates that are still being worn by a little girl. The sight of a woman wildly swinging a small child at an attacker is simultaneously the best and worst moment of the film. I stared unbelieving at the screen in awe of the sudden turn into complete unpredictable weirdness. But the moment passes soon enough, returning to the regularly scheduled disappointment. If the film wasn’t going to be smart, it could have at least made a stronger commitment to being appealingly odd.

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