Brain Drain

Limitless asks what would happen if we had unchained mental power. Then it forgets the question.

Brain Drain
If you look like Bradley Cooper and your IQ is 185, you can unbutton all the buttons you want.

Slacker writer gets handed a pill that amps him up. Not in an intoxicated way. In a best-person-he-can-be, using-100-percent-of-his-brain sort of way. You’ve seen the trailer: He writes his novel — which turns out genius — in four days. He’s driven to do sit-ups. Hell, his eyes even get bluer: This is the best Bradley Cooper that Bradley Cooper can be.

“I wasn’t high, I wasn’t wired, just clear,” he says.

“I knew what I needed to do and I knew how to do it.”

It’s total utter fantasy of the best stripe, and just the kind that plugs into an ambitious but procrastinating brain. What if I could write my novel and make a million on the stock market and learn Japanese without even breaking a sweat? What else would I do?

The what-if, as it turns out, is not all that, so much. Limitless clearly was not written by someone taking this best-you-can-be pill. It’s what Cooper’s Eddie Morra might have written before the pill, if he’d ever gotten his act together: It’s not awful. It’s passably entertaining. It thinks it’s taking risks, yet it never goes out on any ledges. It offers up some potentially interesting ideas about the nature of human ambition and the limits of talent, but it doesn’t examine them in more than superficial ways. There’s no genuine extrapolation beyond the most basic level of the premise — what if a simple pill could give your brain a mega tune-up? — and no solutions are offered beyond man-was-not-meant-to-meddle pablum. (Yawn.)

We’ve seen Charly, so we know this can’t end well, even before we walk into the theater. And the script — by Leslie Dixon, based on Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields — doesn’t take us anywhere unexpected. The film opens with Eddie about to jump off a building as someone is banging murderously on a door behind him. Then we flash back to before the beginning, when Eddie was still a slacker slob, just before the pill showed up in his life. So now we know for certain that things really didn’t go well for him. But there’s gotta be more to this movie than that, right?

Eh, not really. Director Neil Burger may, however, have taken a best-you-can-be pill. There’s some original style here, some startling visuals that replicate Eddie’s amplified perception of the world. The long zoom along New York City’s streets and sidewalks — we go through cars, in the back window and out the front windshield, without stopping anywhere along the way — is pretty darn amazing.

Cooper is appealing enough to make you not realize till much later that he cannot possibly have been as bright as he’s supposed to be even without the pill: How could he have bought that nonsense about the pill having gone through clinical trials and being FDA-approved? (And hey, how did he get a book contract, anyway? Losers with no track record don’t get that.)

Something essential is missing from Limitless, something that would make it truly sing as fantasy, as science fiction, as action, as drama. Eddie, responding to an accusation, says: “I don’t have delusions of grandeur, I have an actual recipe for grandeur.” But we never really feel that grandeur, except when the film lets us feel what amped-up Eddie feels. We can see everything coming, as if we’re already on that magic pill ourselves.

Ultimately, the entertainment value of Limitless is limited.

Backcountry Film Festival @ Garland Theater

Thu., Nov. 30, 6-9 p.m.
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