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Movie Review: Limitless (PG-13)

limitlessBy: Roxana Hadadi

Not even the overwhelming good looks of Bradley Cooper can totally save “Limitless.”

And it’s unfair, really, since it’s Cooper’s first real leading role, and the guy’s a fine actor, and he holds his own against Robert De Niro, which is a feat few have successfully accomplished. But “Limitless” has a variety of problems that not even Cooper’s piercing blue eyes or wonderfully chiseled face can fix, missing plot points and uneven pacing that mar the film. An adaptation of the 2001 novel “The Dark Fields” by Alan Glynn, “Limitless” tries to be a thriller about the immensity of human potential but ends up like a drugs-are-actually-OK flick, a weird message given the grotesque nature of some stuff here. People shooting up, people drinking blood, people dying – all of that is pushed to the side for some glamour, an idea you would think films had abandoned back in the ‘80s.

Sike, not. “Limitless” gives us a dopey, struggling protagonist who realizes all his untapped talent and intelligence after taking a drug, NZT, that allows him to feel fully “clear.” Using the drug makes him exercise more, care about his appearance, write like a maniac and recognize patterns everywhere, jettisoning him to popularity, success and – of course – danger and infamy. This is all nice and pleasant, since we care about the main guy and everything, but what is “Limitless” really telling us about power and why we deserve it? Is a main character who steals, cheats on his girlfriend and kills honestly the kind of guy we want ending up on top?

Until you start thinking about it too much, though, “Limitless” is somewhat entertaining. With some narration, we’re introduced to Eddie Morra (Cooper), a struggling writer living in New York City who just gets dumped by his girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish), who complains of feeling only like his “cleaning lady” and his “bank.” While wandering home, Eddie runs into his ex-brother-in-law, Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), a former drug dealer who takes pity on his homeless-looking appearance and gives him a free dose of NZT, a clear pill that acts like a wonder drug. “How much worse could it get?” the two wonder about Eddie’s pitiful existence, and to be fair, it seems pretty bleak.

And just like that, the $800-a-pop drug changes Eddie’s life. He calms down his landlord’s angry wife by helping her with her paper for law school, and then sleeping with her. He cleans his apartment, which had stale food in every disgusting place imaginable. He writes the beginning of his novel, a sci-fi take on the “plight of the individual in the 21st century.” With all that work completed, when the drug wears off, he of course wants more – and when he gets his hands on a bag full of pills, it’s enough to cement his new life.

Women, money, friends – all come fast and frenzied when Eddie is on NZT, and soon he starts making mistakes that will eventually come back to bite him hard. He borrows money from a Russian mobster with a thick accent and no qualms about violence. He gets back together with Lindy, but still finds himself hanging out with gorgeous models all the time. And when he makes millions of dollars day trading, a story about him is written in the New York Post – and financial bigwig Carl Van Loon (De Niro) wants to meet him. How the two work together, and then eventually face off, makes Eddie reconsider his use of NZT and whether the drug is helping him or harming him. Is the stuff changing his life, or changing him? And are the benefits worth the risk?

It’s a testament to Cooper that we sympathize with Eddie at all, since the character really becomes a jerk – conceited, cocky, obnoxious and completely aware of how his intellect gives him power over others. But Cooper is kind of like a vintage Tom Cruise, back when he was young, smug and sliding across wooden floors in his underwear; his energy is infectious. As he transforms from overwhelmed writer to successful hot-shot, Cooper’s assertiveness grows on you, especially as he outsmarts all the bad guys around him. De Niro as Carl works, too, even if he’ll never be as threatening as he was in “The Godfather II” or “Angel Heart.” Still, his gruffness and grizzled demeanor are effective in his clashes with Eddie, whom he resents for exhibiting such intelligence without earning it. Everything you have must eventually be paid for, he warns Eddie, and that price may include blood.

There’s a lot of blood here, too, even though the film is PG-13 – there are two fatal stabbings, an ice skate to someone’s face, a couple of scenes with decapitated hands, a corpse with a bullet to the head and someone slurping someone else’s blood off the floor. There’s also lots of drug use, of course, as well as cursing and a couple of implied sex scenes (no nudity). What’s more questionable than all this, though, is the idea that any kind of drug use can get someone ahead in life – parents may find that idea more morally reprehensible than the violence or sexual content.

Films are fantasies, so maybe it’s too much to expect that “Limitless” would wrap up with an ending that clearly encourages sobriety. But the film’s plot holes, like a murder that ends unsolved, and inconsistent pacing (there are so many fake endings, you’d think this was “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”), also add to its problems. As a leading man, Cooper can – and should – do better.

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