Welcome to another edition of TV Movie of the Week, with me, George Hewer. No applause necessary.
Limitless (2011) is the work in question on this occasion, a crime thriller from director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, 2006) and starring Bradley Cooper (The Hangover Trilogy, 2009-13; Silver Linings Playbook, 2012), Abbie Cornish (Sucker Punch, 2011) and the great, Robert De Niro (if credits are required in this bracket for you to realise who he is, then you don’t deserve the privilege of reading the remainder of this review). The film follows a struggling writer, Eddie Morra (Cooper) and the events that proceed his consumption of the fictional drug, NZT, a pill that ‘unlocks’ the normally idle 80% of the brain and allowing the subject to advance to beyond-genius levels of intelligence.
The premise itself is already a fantastic starting point, as every single member of the audience can relate to the fantasy of wanting to be a better version of themselves, while everyone else in the world remains average. It taps into the deep-seated desires that all of us have to acquire large sums of money with ease, learn foreign languages or musical instruments within days and, of course, the ability to talk anyone into bed. Basically we all want to be superheroes, but without the responsibility of using our skills for anything other than self-gain.
…I find him a little pretentious…
Bradley Cooper is the man trusted with occupying the screen the longest and, for the most part, he does a good job. Although he is of course a household name now, when Limitless was released in early 2011, audiences were yet to see Cooper as a Hollywood leading man. This slight inexperience as a principal protagonist does occasionally shine through as, on occasion, I find him a little pretentious, slightly up-his-own-arse-and-can’t-laugh-at-himself. But I was glad to see him evolve as an actor opposite Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, and indeed for Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), so he’s forgiven for being a tad same-y in this one.
There was also something left to be desired from the usually stellar De Niro as well. He plays Eddie’s boss-come-mentor-come-contributor-come-nobody, Carl Van Loon, and it felt as if he could have certainly done with a little more screen time. It’s a while before we are introduced to him in the story followed by a fairly hefty stretch towards the end where we don’t see him, which left me crying out for a typical De Niro ‘outburst’ sequence. Nonetheless, he carries a great deal of presence on the screen and we’re certainly well aware of his attendance in the scenes that he does appear. Abbie Cornish completes the principal cast and does a perfectly sound job as Eddie’s off-again-on-again-off-again-on-again girlfriend, Lindy (loving the hyphenated descriptions this week). She’s smart and pretty and morally righteous, but personally I struggled to see what Eddie’s character was so in love with about her.
…It may sound like an ordeal but the way the sequence is delivered is what grabs your attention…
What really will grab your attention though, is the cinematography and direction of Limitless. The opening title sequence is where we are first introduced to some stunning visuals, where the camera drops from a New York balcony and weaves through the streets of the city, before morphing into internal images of the human brain which, in turn, changes into a bird’s-eye view of Manhattan before zooming down onto a rooftop which then turns out to be the sky. Phew. It may sound like an ordeal but the way the sequence is delivered is what grabs your attention. Neil Burger describes them as ‘fractal zooms’, as the entire length of the opening titles is actually one shot that appears to ‘zoom in’ continuously. It’s incredibly hard to explain the technicalities and intricacies of how it all came together, so I won’t. All you need to know is, it’s awesome.
I’m a great lover of interesting cinematography and strange camera angles, so when a film shows me something that I’ve never seen before, that’s big brownie points. We get to see the same technique employed again, later on in the story, which helps to convey the blackouts in memory that Eddie has as a result of his brain running at such high functionality for extended periods. It certainly helps us to feel the disjointedness that the character does, as the images are quite psychedelic, and your brain is almost playing catch-up as it desperately tries to calibrate to the continuously zooming image. But in a good way.
…there’s no use in all these fancy flourishes if they don’t form part of a decent story…
But, of course, there’s no use in all these fancy flourishes if they don’t form part of a decent story. Well in this case, we are actually treated to two. The primary one revolves around Eddie and Carl’s deal with a competitor, which will see the two companies join forces, while the secondary one shows the more unsavoury side of Eddie’s life – he is harassed by a Russian gangster, Gennady (Andrew Howard) for both money and NZT. Although both stories are engaging and entertaining, we’re not quite sure which one we are supposed to be focusing on, and I would have liked to have seen a little more crossover between the ‘domains’ of the corporate Van Loon Associates and the perilous criminal underworld that Eddie finds himself in.
This is probably an example of the disconnected feel that some people have described Limitless to having. Several reviews that I’ve come across have said that there are lots of good scenes in the movie, but they don’t seem completely coherent with each other. I’m sure Neil Burger would be quick to say that this is merely a representation of the fragmented psyche that Eddie is subjected to once he is on NZT, but unfortunately I’d have to call bullshit on that one.
…Solid acting, coupled with superb imagery…
I certainly don’t think it holds the film back to any great degree though. By not focusing too much attention on the ‘filler’ scenes, the story is kept very tight, which engages the audience for the entire experience. Solid acting, coupled with superb imagery and a desirable premise, makes Limitless a personal favourite amongst my several-hundred-strong (last one, I promise) DVD collection and, when you consider that it was made for well under 1/10th of the budget of Disney’s John Carter (2012), it can only be described as a good job all round. As usual, I’m sure you won’t take my word for it, so check out the movie this coming Sunday night (22/09) at 9PM on Film4.
No doubt it Burger’s pedigree in music videos helped him to come up with some of the ideas of how to shoot Limitless and he puts his experience to very good use, however I wouldn’t recommend watching it with a bag of magic mushrooms.