The second you watch a trailer for “Limitless,” the new vehicle for rising star Bradley Cooper, you should have the entire movie planned in your head: Man is out of work loser who loses girlfriend/job/apartment. Through drugs/magic/trickery man becomes successful. Man engages in 5-10 minute montage showing him with fast cars, fast women, fabulous houses, and other aspects of a pretty, but empty lifestyle. Then, in the following “be careful what you wish for” scenario, there are two possible outcomes: either man somehow loses everything, learns valuable lesson, gets girl and goes on to live sensible middle-class life, or man does not learn lesson and ends the movie a defeated, broken man. Fin.
There’s nothing wrong with this formula. Technically, “Citizen Kane” is modeled on this blueprint, as is “Big” and “Goodfellas.” It’s what you put in between the lines that count.
Let me be clear. “Limitless” is not “Citizen Kane.”
Written by: Leslie Dixon
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Abbie Cornish
Between the lines of a perfectly serviceable plot construct, director Neil Burger obviously didn’t know if he wanted a slick, polished thriller or a gritty B-movie aesthetic. So he decided to go with the mediocre version of both. Like a thriller it’s glossy and over-polished, but without the writing to back it up. Like a B-movie, it’s amoral, plot hole-ridden and ridiculous, but without any of the fun to make it enjoyable. The result is cold, cynical and unpleasant.
It’s fairly unclear what we’re supposed to think about Bradley Cooper’s character, an out-of-work writer named Eddie who discovers a drug that allows him to access every part of his brain. There’s something about Cooper I’ve always found a little unlikeable- like a friend’s ex-boyfriend who gets to keep hanging around because he’s so damn charming. Cooper’s not a bad actor (his comic timing for some of his lines in “Limitless” is spot-on), but his character is so poorly drawn-out all we see is the fact that he’s a lazy jerk who (spoiler alert) may or may not have committed murder during a blackout induced by his genius drug.
And the voiceover, my God, the voiceover. Every other movement Bradley Cooper makes is punctuated with grating commentary making sure you know what movement he’s making and why. “Limitless” doesn’t trust the audience to understand anything. Whole characters are explained the second they appear on screen. Many critics hold that any voiceover at all is lazy storytelling, which I find a little harsh. But this isn’t just lazy- it’s willfully trying to bypass the basic way you explain something on camera.
Cooper is joined by the stellar Abbie Cornish, who makes as much as she can out of a small role as Eddie’s girlfriend. A scene where she’s being chased through Central Park is both a badass action sequence and really frightening to watch. Robert De Niro also squints his way through a role as a Warren Buffett-type financier; he’s 100 percent phoning it in, but he looks like he’s having a good time.
The music and sound is without a doubt the best part of “Limitless”, often lifting the mediocre action on screen. Watching new and improved Eddie strut down the streets of New York is boring- watching new and improved Eddie strut down the streets of New York to the Black Keys’ “Howlin’ for You” is also pretty boring, but at least you’re listening to a good song. And the sound editing during Eddie’s genius trips makes the world around him seem impenetrable and fragile all at once.
Maybe I’m frustrated because January through March is considered the doldrums of Hollywood film releases (this is the time when producers clear off their shelves of anything that’s not an Oscar movie or a summer blockbuster). Maybe I’ve just seen a lot of crap lately and “Limitless” was the straw that broke the camel’s back. But this movie shouldn’t have been hard to make. The plot is right there to capture. The actors are competent and good-looking and the money’s in the bank. But do yourself a favor and just watch the trailer. It’s more satisfying than the movie itself could ever be.