I guess the main reason why this 2011 film from director Neil Burger (“The Illusionist”) and writer-producer Leslie Dixon (“Mrs Doubtfire” and the remake of “Hairspray”, of all things) underwhelmed me has more to do with what it isn’t than what it actually is. As a cautionary tale about addiction to drugs with benefits that are likely too good to be true, it’s not bad at all. In fact, I liked some of that element of the film.
However, when you hear about a film about a drug that allows you super-brain powers...I dunno, I expected more than just winning at the casino and becoming a genius at the stock market. I saw possibilities with curing diseases, or at the other end of the morality scale, using brain power to basically rule the world. The way the film treats the drug as indeed a drug, I guess it could be argued that the drug’s side effects were always going to get in the way and thus it was always going to be too good to be true (The film perpetuates a myth about how much brainpower we use, but perhaps the drug dealer who tells us this isn’t to be trusted). However, I like my way better, and that’s my point. This treatment of the potentially fascinating central idea results in a rather prosaic and predictable film. It looks as though the director and screenwriter (adapting an Alan Glynn novel from 2001) could’ve used a few brainpower drugs themselves to help expand their minds a bit because ultimately, there’s not much intelligence or original thought going on here. I was expecting such things and thusly was disappointed with what I did get about drug dealers, addiction, greedy corporate people, and a writer who takes the drug because he’s lazy and needs to catch up. I get that the film needed to show the negative effects of drugs, but I don’t think it shows enough imagination and scope in examining the rise before the fall, let alone the grand intellectual possibilities.
The Cooper character is really the problem, and not just because he’s a lazy douchebag with an overdue novel he hasn’t even started writing yet (Though that sure doesn’t help). At one point, the dealer (played by Johnny Whitworth) says that the drug works best if you’re already smart, or something to that effect. And that’s the thing. I wanted a film about someone who is already smart (Made by a writer and director who are also smart). Even if you accept the misnomer that we only access a certain small percentage of our brain, wouldn’t it be better if this film were about a genius accessing the rest of their brain? Nah, let’s just watch Bradley Cooper beat the odds at poker (somehow I don’t see Johnny Chan or Daniel Negreanu as geniuses despite being great poker players), learn foreign languages, and play the piano like a maestro. Yeah, that’s so much more interesting. Right. He gets to drive fast cars and fuck hot women, y’know, the stuff that it takes a genius to do. The film does delve into the potentially interesting world of the stock market, but only as it serves the film’s rise-and-fall morality lesson, which whilst somewhat well-done, wasn’t as interesting to me. Besides, that doesn’t take a genius, either. Anyone seen “Wall Street” or “Boiler Room”? I was interested in what the drug did to Cooper, somewhat, but not what he chose to do with what the drug allegedly gives him. Well, aside from the kung-fu fighting. That was fun (Oddly enough, the film’s ending hints at possibilities the rest of the film disappointingly avoids, suggesting a sequel would be vastly superior to this. I doubt we’ll get it, though).
I will say this, though. When you look at the film’s premise, it is kind of interesting in how it seems like the reverse of “The Hangover”. Cooper takes drugs here in order to remember pretty much everything, whilst in “The Hangover”, he and his pals remembered nothing after going on a bender the night before. I also found it interesting that when Cooper took the drug it seemed to make everyone else a lousy shot. So does that mean that Steven Seagal is a junkie? Just sayin’. The other big issue I had with the film is the director’s intrusive style. Beginning with the most obnoxiously and needlessly loud opening credits I’ve come across since “Batman Forever”, the film is distractingly loud in terms of both visuals and sound. It’s self-indulgent and in-your-face.
I’m not a Bradley Cooper fan, outside of his breakthrough role on TV’s “Alias”. I find him a fairly unlikeable, sleazy presence on screen, actually. Why isn’t his character smart enough to realise he’s such an insufferable douchebag? Here watching him babble incessantly whilst his narration also babbles on and on is a nauseating experience. Abbie Cornish, never a favourite of mine, is bland as hell, lacking any charm or presence here at all. Robert De Niro is well-cast in a role entirely beneath his obvious and immense talents. I wish I didn’t have to keep typing that sentence. If De Niro isn’t going to offer up any challenging or interesting work as an actor then why doesn’t he fuck off and just produce/direct and look after his restaurant chain? He clearly doesn’t lack funds and he’s just wasting everyone’s time. Robert John Burke, meanwhile, is similarly wasted in an even lesser role. Tomas Arana once played a nice, normal dad in a movie and he scared the fuck out of me. He’s so scary that Tom Noonan and John Malkovich probably wouldn’t share a scene with him.
This overly flashy film is a constant frustration. Some of it is interesting as an exploration of drug addiction, but it has taken a great concept into an area less interesting than it could be, whilst also indulging in clichés. Limitless? No, quite limited indeed.