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Review: Limitless (2011)

Limitless (2011)

Directed by: Neil Burger

Premise: A down on his luck writer (Bradley Cooper) is given a set of pills that make him a genius. Using his newfound intellectual powers, he rockets to success but finds that maintaining his new life is dependent upon continually consuming the medication, which has dangerous side effects.

What Works: Limitless is a parable about overnight success and although none of its revelations about life in the fast lane are all that original, the first half of the film does tell the rags to riches story pretty well. The drug that unleashes the mental powers of the protagonist is a very interesting metaphor and the film borrows some of the conventions of an addiction plotline, smartly connecting the growing material success of Bradley Cooper’s character to his deteriorating physical and mental state. Cooper is a very likable actor and his charisma is essential here since the film gets increasingly fragmented as it goes along. Cinematically, Limitless has a unique visual style, using composite shots, zooms, non diegetic elements, and other camera tricks that link the visuals of the story world to the main character’s experience as a drug user. The film also uses color very well and makes some interesting choices in perspective and camera placement that cinematography buffs should find interesting.

What Doesn’t: Limitless has a number of problems with its story. One of the main problems is the lack of a coherent villain. There are several adversaries circling around Cooper’s character, but none of them come into direct conflict with him. As a result, there is little pressure put on the protagonist that pushes him or requires that he push back and the middle of the film breaks into multiple, disconnected subplots that have little rising action. Several of these subplots are not resolved or come to a dissatisfying conclusion. The most noticeable subplot sees Cooper’s character as the suspect in a murder that occurred when he suffered a blackout. This is a serious problem for the story; the person that the film is asking us to cheer for might have killed a woman, presumably while he was in a drug-fuelled stupor, and the audience is asked to ignore that or treat it as though it is just an asidein the character’s path toward success. Thinking about it further, this plot hole has broader implications for the character and the story; by telling us to ignore the murder, the filmmakers downplay the character’s responsibility and reinforce underlying themes about male privilege and misogynistic attitudes towards women. To be fair, there is a brief visual implication that the murder might have been committed by someone else but because it is never resolved in a meaningful way, that suspicion haunts the rest of the movie. The ending of Limitless is also a problem as the film leaps forward in time, skipping critical character and plot beats and undermining its own themes.

Bottom Line: Limitless has some impressive technical craft but its story is too disjointed. This film is a collection of subplots, loosely linked by a metaphor, that do not unify into a coherent narrative.

Episode: #335 (April 17, 2011)