There’s a similar, but different enough, storyline between Neil Burger’s new film and 1969’s “Charly,” a multi-award winning feature starring Cliff Robertson—who won an Oscar for his performance as a shy, mentally challenged man turned massively intelligent savant via a drug-induced scientific experiment. Bradley Cooper won’t earn any nominations for his character in this stylish, fast paced fantasy about a top-secret pill that cures writer’s block and much more, not the least is a greasy complexion, less-than-hygenic kitchen habits, mental incompetence, and a nasty wardrobe (well this fix is ably assisted via dashing suits by Tom Ford ). But Cooper will turn heads as he demands your attention in a fine dramatic performance that rises above the meltdown potential of staring into his baby blue eyes.
Cooper, one of the main attractions of 2009’s “The Hangover,” the top grossing R-rated comedy of all time—with Part II due out May 26— more than ably bounces back from the lackluster reboot of “The A Team” as well as the disasters known as “All Above Steve” and “Case 39.” With “Limitless” he burns the leather off his shoes racing through this cautionary rags-to-near-instant-riches tale. It’s an adrenaline-inducing, nightmarish run to the final frame (and he’s in nearly every one of them) as his Eddie Morra pops a freebie called NZT48 that his ex-wife’s drug-dealing brother (Johnny Whitworth) offers him after a chance encounter. Overnight he transforms from unkempt loser to a genius who can master 100% of his brain’s potential, allowing him to finish off that stuck-in-the-mud novel in days and then start to dabble in financial markets. It’s here, at the 45-minute marker, that Cooper’s co-star Robert De Niro rears his wavy mane as Carl Van Loon, a hedge fund manager with secrets that Morra easily deduces, attracting scrutiny and attention that, taken with too much of the smart drug, brings him increasing paranoia. The tension, at least early on, isn’t so much between the two actors, but from a gnarly mix of Morra’s methods for creating a workable synthetic copy of the drug when his main supplier is put out of commission by the stalking, mysterious ‘Man in a Tan Coat’ (Tomas Arana), and being hunted by said clothesly-named character—as well as trying to avoid/outwit Gennedy, an Eastern European lowlife gangster/loanshark who likes to collect debts in massively weaponed ways. There’s also a potential murder rap tossed in for additional angst, as if the dwindling supply of NZT and often-fatal withdrawal symptoms aren’t enough.
“Obviously I miscalculated a few things,” Morra narrates in world weary fashion as the film opens—co-producer Leslie Dixon’s screenplay (based on a 2001 book by Alan Gynn) has enough droll humor to offset the serious side of the story. The layered complexity/light comic relief that Dixon, who engineering the 2007 hit “Hairspray” and co-wrote the 1993 smash “Mrs. Doubtfire,” provides gets a nice boost from the tech savvy Burger (“The Illusionist,” “The Lucky Ones,” “Interview with the Assassin”), his fourth feature and first with cinematographer Jo Willems. They’ve got a mind-bending trademark ‘gotcha’ shot that adds to the deft production design scheme (by Patrizia von Brandenstein) of “Limitless” involving an ever telescoping camera that cosmically whizzes through cars and other objects that populate the New York City street scape. Another 360-degree effect attempts, fairly well, to show how a man with a now four-digit IQ can absorb and assimilate all the data he scans. Other hallucinogenic, space shifting moments heighten the sometimes very intense vibes emanating from Morra and his environs.
Abbie Cornish is Morra’s off-again-on-again-huh-again g.f. Liddy who pops in and out of bed and scenes without much to add, but at least gets her own derring-do scene amid ice skaters in Central Park, where she quickly learns the power of good timing.
The ultimate movie for the overburdened multi-taskers amongst us, “Limitless” one-ups the battle of lowly “Jeopardy”-winning humans who recently stumbled against Watson, the A.I. computer. That IBM machine would be left in a dusty recycle bin in a battle of minds with the likes of Eddie Morra. The ending has loads of leverage, and the film has plenty of moxie. Nice ride!