By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
It’s too bad Dr. Timothy Leary isn’t around to lend us his perspective on director Neil Burger’s “Limitless,” about a writer who experiments with the ultimate mind-expanding drug and the inevitable side effects that make for the death-defying adventure of his life. However, in the doc’s absence, and having also lived through the ‘60s, I will try my best.
Splendidly adapted from Alan Glynn’s novel, “The Dark Fields,” by Leslie Dixon, the story first introduces us to Bradley Cooper’s Eddie Morra, the guy once thought most likely to succeed, but who hasn’t. In fact, the young scribe is pretty much on the skids: no money, given the gate by his gal, and not even one page written of that redemptive novel.
Perhaps he wasn’t destined to be among that elite group of folks who, by getting hold of the brass ring, inspire us think we could do the same. But not so fast to write him off, for Horatio Alger does indeed ride to at least a temporary rescue. It comes in the form of a little magic pill. An old saw, back in the fairy tale days they called it a potion.
Same thing. But whereas, according to Grace Slick’s advisory in The Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” one pill makes you larger and one makes you small, in this case the translucent orb Eddie receives from a sleazy but high-priced drug dealer makes you smarter, and then some. Like, you now use all of your brain, and not just 20% of it.
Credit director Burger and his FX folks with making real the concept. For it stands to reason that without a similar dosage of the stuff, we couldn’t begin to imagine the exponential brainpower that represents. Guilty thrills admitted, it all leads to one heck of a roller coaster ride into the realm of heightened intelligence. But don’t try this at home.
Certainly the most imaginative and philosophically erudite fictionalization on the topic since William Hurt submerged himself in the experimentations of “Altered States” (1980), the fantasy is exhilarating. And it’s heartening, at long last, to employ that most overused adjective, awesome, without it proving a monotonous exaggeration. Totally.
This should shine Bradley Cooper’s star, if not earn him an Oscar nomination. His transitions, starting with the move from failed writer to Wall Street pundit, represent a quantum leap that he handles with winning aplomb. His work opposite Robert De Niro, who smartly portrays financial mogul Carl Van Loon, certifies his thespic ascendancy.
Like a sports team inspired by its star player’s lead, several supporting actors pick up on the energy. Abbie Cornish is suitably credible as Lindy, the on again, off again love interest; Andrew Howard is frighteningly stellar as Gennady, the Russian loan shark who wants into Eddie’s stash; and Johnny Whitworth is an appropriately creepy pusher.
But lest this vicarious journey to full actualization goes to our heads, please note we are dealing with drugs. And as such, we as well as our protagonist must be prepared for the downside, the side effects, the quickly pronounced heeding after the commercial informs how great some Rx performs. Remember, call an M.D. if experiencing suicidal thoughts.
Without giving too much away, I’ll only tell you that Eddie finishes his novel in record time before coming face-to-face with two major forms of repercussion. First, there’s the withdrawal. Think your first bona fide hangover multiplied by infinity. And then there’s the sort of characters you’ll have to sully yourself with in order to stay high and mighty.
Voila, filmmaker Burger succeeds in combining a highly theoretical concept with trenchantly engaging action and seat-edged suspense. Add a subtext about American greed and insider trading, then venture how all these ingredients might affect an already tenuous love affair, and the only thing more you could ask for is free popcorn and soda.
At its purest, elemental level, the film iterates a classic, cautionary tale about substance abuse reminiscent of the metaphoric intelligence imparted in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Of course here there’s a modern twist, a well conceived and visionary treatise on human potential that’s sure to titillate the synapses.
Call me a crazy optimist. I think we might even be able to fly, without having to grow wings. However, for those who couldn’t care less for hypotheses about what our gray matter might be capable of, note there’s much violence and venal derring-do to please the more viscerally inclined. As a result, both camps will agree “Limitless” is really far out.
“Limitless,” rated PG-13, is a Relativity Media release directed by Neil Burger and stars Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and Abbie Cornish. Running time: 105 minutes
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