I found myself much more intrigued with Limitless’s lackluster trailer when Neil Burger’s name came up. You may remember him as writer and director of the 2006 Sundance film The Illusionist, starring Edward Norton, Jessica Biel and Paul Giamatti. It’s a fantastic little film that never got as much play as it deserved, although it does have an eighty seven percent approval rating from top critics at Rotten Tomatoes. The film was clever, and atmospheric and a bit spellbinding. A quick check of Burger’s IMDb page surprised me when I found I had never even heard of his follow up to Illusionist, The Lucky Ones, released in 2008. I don’t think many did, since it only made $200,000 domestically. I’m digressing. The point is, Burger’s name lent a credibility to this otherwise surface-y looking film. I’m glad that I gave it a chance.
Not much needs to be said of the plot, it’s thin enough to be neatly explained in the trailer. A down-and-out full-time writer and slob happens upon a miracle drug that allows him to become and super-intellectual genius, leading to opportunities among the major leagues of investment banking, business, and excess. He picks up languages effortlessly. He gets a haircut. But, of course, there are the previously unknown side effects that cause blackouts, possible murderous rampages, and death if anyone is to stop taking the magic pill once they’ve started.
The overall form of the film is lacking. It’s uneven in places, sometimes it doesn’t even follow its own logic. But for what Burger lacked in direction (and in script), his actors make up for with flawless style and panache that makes you forget all that when cliches like Russian immigrant loan sharks show up threatening the thousand-watt-smile Bradley Cooper with eastern European looking torture instruments. Although these elements can’t exclusively be pinned on Burger. He was at the mercy of a book originally, written by Alan Glynn, and the script extract from the book, by Leslie Dixon (Hairspray, Freaky Friday).
Cooper was basically built to be put in tailored suits, smiling and looking great. He’s always spending vast amounts of money, meaning he either blessed with lots of luck or spends a lot of time at this site and others like it . But he manages to pull off the difficult lines, just well enough, no one can say he’s not quite good enough. This isn’t meant to be a compliment as much as it sounds like it is one. And paired across several expensive restaurant tables with the gorgeous Abbie Cornish, it’s a bit synergetic, the two could, and do carry the film when needed. Although Robert De Niro hasn’t shown any evidence in the last few years that he’s interested in giving really great performances, his character, meant to be a menacing titan of industry, comes off limp and confusingly directionless. And no amount of energy could have pulled his flat character out of the rut it was stuck in from the get go.
The film takes a bit of a political turn at the end that I found neither obtuse nor annoying. After all, there’s no real preaching to be done when considering the all but tenuous relationships between pharmaceutical companies, and their funding of political campaigns and lobbies. Nor about these companies’ death grip on the balls of the American medical industry and transitively the economy. No, it’s not preaching, just a playful reminder. A satire if you want to assign a overly flattering term.
It’s not a perfect film, but it’s interesting. It’s stylish and there’s plenty of beauty and fancy effects and camera work. But perhaps the films best moment comes at the very end, which puts a subtly cynical twist to each of the characters, effectively exposing them for what they really are, actually inviting you to think a bit about what you just saw after you’ve left the theatre.