Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Big Apple Hangover, With Groundhog Drug Days

Your best friend Doug can't save you now: Bradley Cooper as Eddie in Neil Burger's sci-fi drama "Limitless". 

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"Limitless", now playing across North America, is more satire than sci-fi, the kind of Tom Wolfe Vanities satire that lampoons self-centered, short-attention-spanned young American males, the kind who stand around and "look pretty" after a get-rich-quick high hits them.  Neil Burger directs Bradley Cooper in the aforementioned role, a role Mr. Cooper has played before, well sort of -- with alcohol -- in "The Hangover".  (Note that the hotel corridors in the photo of this review and the blue-highlighted one above look similar.)

Based on The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn, "Limitless" opens with Eddie (Mr. Cooper), a frustrated writer under contract to complete a book.  Months pass before a single character is typed on the screen Eddie stares at.  Bedraggled, he's a mess, and a hopeless one at that.  Eddie's lost the woman of his dreams, and his ex-brother-in-law happens to have a diamond-like pill to solve Eddie's writer's block, which propels the protagonist into an alternate reality and identity.  Suddenly Eddie's lust for life and the women (whether antagonistic or not) who happen along the way, increases tenfold.  Money comes easily too, as does his former squeeze Lindy (Abbie Cornish).  Just like Buzz Lightyear in the overrated "Toy Story 3", Eddie is multilingual.  (Eddie's sold separately -- as in separate mental states -- drug-induced or otherwise.)

Mr. Cooper is perfectly cast as a pretty-boy type stripped down, built up and stripped down again, yo-yo style.  The drug of choice is a conduit for the alacrity of how a "golden boy" sails through life (ala Tom Cruise in "Vanilla Sky" among others), without having to reckon with the consequences of self-indulgence and egotistical vainglory until it's almost past too late.  Eddie effortlessly trades in money markets.  Like some real-life Wall Street market traders Eddie does his best work all drugged up.  He tries to "school" high-rolling investor Cal Van Loon (Robert De Niro) but Carl is only playing along long enough to allow Eddie to see the error of his ways -- but does he see them? 

Eddie's a shark, but by the film's slimy, grimy Peckinpah nadir his shark-toothed grin is smug and hollow.  "Limitless" has its cheeky, funny moments, giddily indulging in the folly and harsh reality of addiction, allowing others to get in on the hallucinogen act that crazy sells.  It's a fast-food culture out there, and Eddie knows how to short-cut to that quick fix.  And he doesn't need the latest iPad or iPhone 4 to attain it.  No waiting in long lines at o'dark-hundred hours for the latest high.  Eddie isn't destitute or necessarily in dire straits early on, yet he has been cast as the chosen one, complete with oracle-like power thanks to a drug more heavenly to many men than Viagra.  Mr. Gyllenhaal's salesman in "Love And Other Drugs" just couldn't compete with this.  He wouldn't stand a chance.

Eddie is an inflated superhero cut from the me-me-me 1980s.  His veneer is fleeting and his weakness is as imminent as the end of his next sexual conquest.  Especially with the drugs, Eddie is on constant auto-pilot, so much so that he scarcely enjoys the many though ephemeral lucid moments the film provides him.  Mr. Burger's film doesn't take drug use too seriously, but there are parts of "Limitless" that are chilling, and feel like a metaphor for the HIV/AIDS crisis that ravaged New York City, where "Limitless" takes place.

Kiss the rich: Abbie Cornish as Lindy and Bradley Cooper as Eddie in Neil Burger's sci-fi drama "Limitless".  Rogue

In some scenes "Limitless" has a seductive power but the effect is only as good as the strength and credibility of the addiction -- and aloofness of those who don't (or won't) see that Eddie can't possibly be *this* sharp.  As casually narrated by Mr. Cooper, there's a Bret Easton Ellis undertone to Eddie, albeit without all the extreme, graphic violence and self-hatred.  Where Mr. Ellis' American Psycho book character (played in Mary Harron's horror-comedy by Christian Bale) was a slick, self-hating savage sociopath, misanthrope and woman-hater, Eddie probably falls more on this ignorant, blissfully unaware side of 1980s New York City "preppie killer" Robert Chambers.  An unseen episode in "Limitless" seems to loosely reference Mr. Chambers, though not through his deadly violence against Jennifer Levin during a sexual episode in Central Park, but rather via Eddie in a hotel room during a sexual encounter with a model in the story.

If there's anything else disconcerting about "Limitless", written by Leslie Dixon, it's the idea that you are only someone of note and significance when you make lots of money (never mind how much), and that your substance and values as a person are irrelevant.  Women will only flock to a man, "Limitless" implies, when that man has a ton of money, regardless of anything else (see the recent "Take Me Home Tonight".)  Never mind that the men are complete schmucks -- which Eddie occasionally is -- if the bacon's on the table, said woman, any woman, will be sure to fry it up in a pan and keep coming back for more. 

The cynicism underlying such folklore legitimizes a mate-selection theory out of whack with the current economic realities for most men available to women.  It also comes with the implicit idea, and fallacy, that lazy-boned men get instant rewards for inaction thanks to excessive drug use, while blue-collar men may toil or be lazy and are stigmatized and ridiculed for both -- and even more so, especially if they indulge in the same drugs (or worse.)

Mr. Cooper, a clean-cut fellow, inhabits privilege as Eddie through illicit means, and therefore mocks it, making fun of himself in the process.  Mr. Cooper isn't as comic in "Limitless" as he is likely to be in a couple of months when "The Hangover Part II" arrives, but here he has more freedom to make, and learn from, his mistakes.  Even so, we're not so sure that his Eddie has learned his lesson when all is said and done.

While Mr. Burger's jarring film is watchable I don't think "Limitless" is an easy film to embrace.  Its faults (its reliance on stupefying and shallow characters who are surely brighter than portrayed) are too distracting to be a wholly enjoyable experience.  There are many scenes of blunt, rough violence ala "Taken", pushing the edges of the PG-13 rating.  Still, Mr. Burger's drama gets its fair share right on a landscape where every possible thing seems incongruous and wrong, and far too easily so.

With: Andrew Howard, Anna Friel, Johnny Whitworth, Robert John Burke, Darren Goldstein, Ned Eisenberg, T.V. Carpio, Richard Bekins, Patricia Kalember.

"Limitless" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for thematic material involving a drug, violence including disturbing images, sexuality and language.  The film has brief French, Italian and Spanish language with English language subtitles.  The film's running time is one hour and 46 minutes. 

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