Bradley Cooper graduates from supporting roles in ensemble pictures to leading man and handles the transition with skill, if not a lot of charisma, in “Limitless.” Cooper (“The Hangover,” “The A-Team”) has to be convincingly dull and believably brilliant in this sci-fi tale of a writer who gets hooked on pills that make him a lot smarter.
Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a failed and failing writer who smokes too much, drinks too much and writes too little. Until that fateful day when his ex-brother in law drops a pill on him. NZT, it’s called. Helps you “focus,” they say. Who “they” are is a mystery. And in a vision-bending instant, Eddie becomes a new man.
Director Neil Burger (“The Illusionist”) uses fisheye lenses, extreme close-ups and an over-amplified soundtrack to show how Eddie’s perception of the world changes in that moment. He sees other versions of himself, writing a book, cleaning his filthy apartment. It’s as if he suddenly “gets it” and the rest of the world is moving too slowly for his brain. He remembers every fact he’s ever encountered and organizes information in ways that it can be useful to him. He learns foreign languages in hours, masters new skills in minutes.
“I was blind, but now I see,” he narrates.
What he sees are ideas worth putting into his magnum opus book, and ways to cash in on his brain-power. His confident brilliance connects him to the jet set. His analytical abilities allow him to make a killing day-trading stocks. Before he comes down off his “high,” he’s confidently borrowed money from a mobster (Andrew Howard), turned that into his first million, attracted the attention of a tycoon (Robert DeNiro) and won back his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish).
But there is a downside. We’ve seen it. The tale is told in a long flashback following an opening scene in which thugs are beating his door down, ready for payback.
“For a guy with a four digit I.Q., I must have missed something,” he narrates.
This film based on Alan Glynn’s novel “Dark Fields” is entirely too reliant on voice-over, a bit too tarted-up by Burger in an effort to make this head trip a visual experience. It’s a movie whose dizzying and dazzling visuals distract us from a deliciously complicated story. But those complications — Is he paranoid or is everybody after him? — seriously cut into character development. Relationships are shortchanged and this brisk tale fails to find any emotional traction.
Cooper is fine, but all that voice-over is no substitute for actual screen charisma. He’s still growing into that. But the cockiness thing he handles, no sweat.
“I don’t have delusions of grandeur, I have an actual recipe.”
Thus, “Limitless” comes off as a movie with limitations, a smart wish-fulfillment fantasy that makes us fret over “Be careful what you wish you” right up to the moment it stumbles to a finish.
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro, Abbie Cornish
Director: Neil Burger
Running time: 1:46
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material involving a drug, violence including disturbing images, sexuality and language