Friday, March 18, 2011

Noir Lite: Neil Burger's Limitless

There are clever visual bits littered throughout Neil Burger's sunlit noir Limitless, but the experience is noir lite. Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is an unemployed aspiring writer who is mired in inertia. He can't write a word, can't hold onto his girl (Abbie Cornish), and can't even comb his hair. When his former brother-in-law introduces him to an experimental drug NZT (before being murdered for possessing it), Eddie discovers easy access to every square inch of his brain. He recalls everything he's read, learns every language he hears, becomes a piano prodigy, wins back his girl. And he learns to comb his hair. Soon Eddie becomes a genius in the world of high finance, too, drawing the attention of business mogul Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro). Van Loon sees Eddie as a potential means to making a ton of cash. But NZT also has its downside for Eddie, giving him headaches, lost moments, forgotten homicides, attracting Russian mobsters and facing a dwindling supply of pills to keep him hopping. Luckily, he finds a way to keep his luck running and his ambitions fulfilled.

It's daring to set a film noir drama almost entirely in the daytime and Burger provides a clever subtext of linking the use of drugs to the world of high finance (high, or course, being the operative word). But Limitless still ends up being a rather limited drama. As he proved though in his dreamy and seductive The Illusionist (2006), Burger knows how to think with his eyes. In Limitless, however, it's his brain that fails him. Most good noirs show how good men make bad choices by giving in to desires that destroy their lives. Their lives, in fact, spiral downward in their attempt to succeed. Limitless shows Eddie instead creating a lot of wreckage while becoming upwardly mobile, but he's never left accountable for it. Eddie's insider trading and metaphysical manner of cheating his way to the top is presented as something victorious.

Perhaps because Neil Burger loves the ephemeral flow of images, he also falls too much in love with the drug itself. Unlike Christopher Nolan in Inception, Burger knows how to magically pull us inside altered states of mind. But like Inception, the story arc is ridiculous. Nolan's picture presented his hero's task of aiding a predatory businessman gain full control in a turf war as something affirmative rather than highly questionable. Limitless grooves so much on Eddie's drug addiction that it celebrates his transformation into top Yuppie on the pile.

Abbie Cornish and Bradley Cooper
Despite all the dazzling action surrounding Bradley Cooper, his performance is rather colourless. There's little at stake in Eddie anyway because Cooper simply turns him from being a bland loser into a bland shark. Abbie Cornish is also no more than a hallucination with little opportunity to add much to the movie. (She seems to welcome Eddie back because he dresses better.) As for De Niro, his presence adds some weight but little imagination. Given the urgency of his need to find out what Eddie knows, he seems rather indifferent to Eddie's withdrawal spells.

Limitless is probably getting so many positive reviews because, like The Adjustment Bureau, it gives off the air of doing something new. But it's a hollow pastiche. Light on its toes. Empty in its head.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier continues his lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) at the Revue Cinema in Toronto in March looking at the Femme Fatale.

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely love this movie. On some ways, it shows the adverse effect of the wonder drug, only in this case, it bears more advantages than the usual addictive substances.