Bradley Cooper’s rise continues. After the breakout success of The Hangover in 2009, the speed of his move from TV ensemble actor to leading man has seemed, well, limitless. All of which makes his new film, about a man who goes from obscurity to the toast of the town in a matter of days, somewhat thematically appropriate. The fact that his character has been helped by a revolutionary new drug is, we trust, where the parallels end.
Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a failed writer recently dumped by his girlfriend. An underachieving, heavy drinking slob, his life is seemingly going nowhere until he bumps into an old friend following a less than legal career path. Given a clear pill known as NZT, Morra is suddenly able to access and utilise every part of his brain – as opposed to the usual 10% – and soon enough he is learning and thinking at prodigious speed, finishing his novel in the space of a weekend. Finding his supplier murdered, Morra steals his stash, and becoming able to absorb and find patterns in huge amounts of financial data, quickly becomes the protégé of Robert De Niro’s legendary financier. But he also has to deal with the police, loan sharks and fellow addicts on his tail, as well as the potentially fatal side effects of his new addiction.
The film begins with Cooper standing on a ledge of an apartment building, the camera teetering over the edge and tumbling to earth. It is a vertiginous opening, as well as a metaphor for Morra’s precarious lifestyle. Director Neil Burger, most famous for the underrated The Illusionist, creates an energetic visual style, brightening the world when Morra is on his kick, and having letters fall from the ceiling as he writes. He even has lead seeing earlier versions of himself, a clever way of showing a man thinking a few steps ahead. Limitless is at it’s best when evoking the whirlwind of success, and these early scenes steam past in a whirl of colour and energy.
Cooper, meanwhile, is an actor built to swagger. In his brashness and sharp, quipping exchanges with De Niro, he like an amped up version of Gordon Gecko. But despite accruing wealth and status, there is always a sense that a stupid decision can bring it all crashing down. Portraying a character leading a wild lifestyle off the back of a drug habit, mixing with dangerous criminals and riding high in the boardroom, Limitless is like a cross between Wall Street and Blow, where addiction and success are shown to only go hand in hand temporarily. Limitless isn’t shy about showing the depths to which Morra will go for both success and his habit – which may in the end be the same thing. It could be read as a take on the sorts of characters who caused the global financial crisis.
While the freewheeling nature of the film initially works well, however, there is always a danger that it will fly off the rails and stay there. In the end Limitless collapses under the sheer number of storylines it juggles, and the unpredictability that initially makes it endearing gives way to inconsistency of tone and narrative drive. Morra flits between negotiating a corporate merger, winning back his girlfriend, being chased by a Russian gangster, attempting to track down the origins of his precious pills, face a murder wrap and, finally, make a run for public office. Unable to decide between broad comedy, thriller plotting or character study, Burger instead decides to do all three, ten minutes at a time, tying up and resurrecting storylines seemingly at random.
Also, while Cooper may swagger, he struggles when required to add extra dimensions to his character. His moments of emotional vulnerability don’t quite convince, and while Limitless will confirm his leading man status, he is yet to prove that he has an enduring actor’s range. The same can’t be said of Abbie Cornish, who in Bright Star showed herself capable to taking on roles far more rewarding than that of Morra’s girlfriend. In the end the film is guilty of not really having any idea of where it’s going, and by the time it reaches what seems like a fifth ending, Limitless becomes the very equivalent of drug addiction. There are highs, and it may be fun for a while, but in the end it’s a thudding, relentless road to nowhere.