REVIEW: Not-So-Hottie Bradley Cooper Hits the Wall in Not-So-Hot Limitless
As part of my ongoing effort to give the Hollywood marketing machine the benefit of the doubt, I've long been waiting for the hotness of Bradley Cooper to kick in. After watching Limitless, I'm still waiting. Cooper's teeth are polymer-perfect, and I'm not so sure that's a plus. The father of our country reportedly had dentures made of wood or hippo ivory, which must have been ghastly, yet so many contemporary movie-star choppers appear to have been carved from a solid block of something. Is the George Washington look the gold standard among Hollywood dentists?
If Gilbert Stuart is to be believed, Washington also at least had some charisma. Cooper has the elan of a handsome rodent -- you could picture him wearing a little checked vest in a forest fairy-tale, maybe, and if that's your idea of a sex object, by all means, knock yourself out. Otherwise, Limitless is mostly hemmed in by its own perfunctory mediocrity. Directed by Neil Burger and based on Alan Glynn's novel The Dark Fields, Limitless tells the story of lackadaisical, badly groomed New York writer Eddie Morra (Cooper) who has a publishing contract but is having trouble finishing his novel. His ex-brother-in-law appears, like Beelzebub, offering him a new, untested pharmaceutical, NZT, that will purportedly allow him to use every last cubic micrometer of his brain power. Failing to notice that this miracle drug bears a marked resemblance to those little clear plastic nubs you put on furniture legs to keep them from scraping the floor, Eddie pops a tab in his mouth. Suddenly, he has the energy to finish his novel in one day, win back the smart, together girlfriend he recently lost (Abbie Cornish, sadly languishing in the smart, together girlfriend role), and comb his hair.
Eddie has so much success with the hair-combing thing that he moves on to day trading, making a bundle on the stock market and attracting the attention of a financial fatcat with the unfortunate name of Carl Van Loon (no relation to The Story of Mankind author Hendrik Willem etc., and played by Robert De Niro), though not before he borrows capital from a bad-news Russian thug (played by Welsh actor Andrew Howard). But forget about that Russian thug -- just as, you've probably already guessed, Eddie does. The main thing is that NZT turns that sad, blatant "L" on your forehead into a big neon "W." And who doesn't want that?
The problem with NZT is that once you've had a taste, you only want more, more, more. But if you stop taking it -- well, De Niro's character pretty much gives all that away in the movie's trailer, but let's try to preserve at least the illusion of mystery here. Because for the first half or so, Limitless qualifies as a glossy, overachieving entertainment. Burger and screenwriter Leslie Dixon are sly enough to know that they're supposed to be having fun with this premise, and for a while, they do. Even Cooper knows how to use his well-manicured demeanor for a laugh. After his first dose of NZT, Eddie gushes in voiceover about its numerous benefits: He learned to play piano in three days (cut to Cooper tickling the ivories like Alfred Brendel); he can become fluent in any language just by listening to a few tapes while jogging (we see Cooper putting the moves on a hot foreign babe in a slinky dress). Apparently, your brain on NZT doesn't look like a drippy egg in a frying pan; it's more like a Godiva thing wrapped in gleaming gold foil, and chicks can't resist it.
But everyone loses the plot when things turn serious, mainly because the allegedly serious stuff in Limitless is pretty dumb: Treating furniture-nub withdrawal as if it were more harrowing than anything in Trainspotting. Using an ice-skate-clad child as a lethal weapon. Casting Robert De Niro. (Realizing he no longer has to do anything so pedestrian as act in order to collect a paycheck, De Niro now just wears his cleaning-out-the-fridge face: He always looks as if he just smelled something bad.)
It didn't have to be this way. Burger's previous films include the 2002 Interview with the Assassin, and he also made the atmospheric 2006 magic-trick romance The Illusionist, a charming picture that was released around the time of Christopher Nolan's flashier, emptier The Prestige and got lost in its shadow. But while Limitless isn't boundlessly terrible, it is guilty of much of the carelessness that's become typical of thrillers these days. The story is resolved in a quick-and-dirty coda -- it answers one of the movie's biggest questions with a rush of expository dialogue. Cooper looks pretty good in the bespoke suits that, fueled by the power of NZT, he's able to buy, but there's no warmth or character in his features. Looking like a movie star doesn't automatically make you one. How, I'm wondering more and more often, do studios put movies like this one in front of audiences and assume they'll just buy it? The secret to making a great, or even just a good, thriller these days seems to have been lost. Maybe the key is not so much feeling invincible as knowing what your limits are.