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Non-Review Review: Limitless

Limitless has an epiphany about half-way through its runtime. We follow our lead, Eddie, as he discovers a miracle drug which manages to somehow make you a genius (he boasts he has “a four-digit IQ”). However, he is stunned to discover that coming off the drug isn’t exactly pretty. Those who haven’t given up have all died. He meets a survivor in a small café, where she recounts how wonderful the experience of using the drug was, but how hallow life seemed afterwards. Having tasted that sort of greatness, she relates how the world seemed boring afterwards, she couldn’t focus and nothing could hold her attention for more than ten minutes. She seems to have been speaking on behalf of the film.

It's all falling into place...

Limitless is one of a string of movies this spring which takes an especially ridiculous high concept and uses it as a vehicle to explore some interesting ideas. The basic premise of the movie has a loser would-be writer stumbling across a designer drug which spark neural activity. Playing off the entirely false (but still pervasive) rumour that we only use “twenty percent” of our brains, the drug promises to unlock the full potential of our scruffy, unshaven, unsuccessful writer. In short, it turns him into Bradley Cooper – or the kind of character typically played by Cooper, at least: effortless handsome, a little charming, perhaps a bit of a jerk and always smarter than he seems.

Without breaking a bead of sweat, Eddie is suddenly seducing beautiful women by the bucketload, turning huge amounts of profit on investments and turning around his own version of War & Peace inside a week. It’s a fairly straightforward fantasy he’s living out, and something that I think all of us might secretly have aspired to at one moment or another. He wants success, but without the hard work that brings success. He just wants to be instantly successful, rather than earning it. It’s an interesting commentary on the young male mindset.

This is your concept, on drugs...

Indeed, the script is bristling with insightful ideas. The problem is that there are just too many of them. Eddie suggests that it’s human nature to “over reach” and that our constant thirst for more is our downfall. The movie references the current financial crisis, although not in this context – but it’s not a difficult connection to make. “Don’t make the smart guy mistake of thinking nobody’s smarter than you,” billionaire industrialist Carl Von Loon warns Eddie, but he does – repeatedly. It’s hard not to make the point that it’s the sort of arrogance and recklessness that Eddie demonstrates here is fueled the boom and led to the bust. It’s particularly fascinating that Eddie discusses Portugal as his example of hubris leading to a fall.

However, the movie never really focuses long enough to develop a particular line of thought. Along with suggestions about Eddie’s arrogance, there’s also the fact that any attempt to warn him is treated as some sort of attempt to repress a young and excited generation. “Your powers are not earned,” Von Loon warns him. “You’re careless with those powers.” Of course, it’s sage advice, but the movie treats Von Loon as an empty suit – a man trying to control what he can’t understand.

At the same time, the movie plays with the notion of addiction, as we witness withdrawal and the lengths Eddie will go to for a fix. “He had me,” he remarks of his dealer, and there’s a scene later on which had the entire audience wincing. There’s also time devoted to the social evolution of drugs, as the wonder drug evolves from oral consumption to direct injection for a more effective hit. There’s even time later on to play with the role that big business plays in political campaigns and the hold that it gets around the throats of promising young candidates.

Know your limits...

All of this is good, no doubt, but it’s simply too scattershot. The movie is very poorly paced, as it stumbles from one hurdle to the next. Entire plot points are brought up, raised as potential problems, and dismissed with a small line in a scene later on. Characters appear and disappear from the story, and it almost seems like Eddie is stumbling his way through three different films as he attempts to deal with the problems in his life. Not all of those three films work especially well.

And then there are the plot holes which the audience must accept in order for the film to work. For example, despite the fact the designer drug can turn a dead-end loser into a millionaire playboy, apparently all it can do for the local drug dealer is have him consider getting into the “import/export” business. Despite the fact that drug can turn Eddie into a kung-fu action star who can handle a subway station full of attackers, he can (going cold turkey) single-handedly subdue a user with a cheap trick even I saw coming before the movie pointed it out. Hell, if a mystery drug makes a person super-intelligent, you’d assume the first thing they’d do would be to investigate it (and try to learn how to reproduce it, or enhance it) – instead, we wait half the movie before the idea is suggested, and then forgotten about until the final reel.

You could make a few Bob with a miracle drug like that...

This isn’t to say the movie is bad. It’s just wildly uneven. Much like the direction of Neil Burger. Apparently being super-intelligent means lots of quick cuts of zoomed-in shots and a helluva lot of fisheye lens. The director does come up with some rather brilliant compositions – the backdrop against which the credits is used is quite impressive (although it loses some power when repeated later in the film), as a sequence overlaying his apartment ceiling with financial data. The music by Paul Leonard-Morgan is equal parts brilliant and distracting – like the rest of the film, it fluctuates incredibly rapidly.

Limitless is a decent little thriller. It has a whole host of clever ideas, but no concept of how to structure them or relay them to us. Instead, it just throws around a whole bunch of plot points from several different narratives and watches them collide. More than the miracle drug itself, which gets a pass as a necessary plot device, the film stretches its credibility repeatedly, with a ridiculous amount of suspension of disbelief required in order to justify everything that happens. It’s by no means a bad film, but it’s just one that isn’t living up to its full potential.

Note: The early version of this review, incorrectly informed by imdb.com incorrectly credited “Nico Muhly” as being involved in the film’s score. Though he was briefly attached to the project, he did not write any music for the final version of the movie. Apologies for the inaccuracy.

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