J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Limitless: Produced with 20% Brain Functionality

What happened to Obama? So ruthlessly effective on the campaign trail, these days he can hardly chose an iron for his approach shots. Maybe he ran out of NZT. A designer drug formulated to tap into the supposed 80% of the brain lying dormant in mere mortals (a myth says Snopes), NZT offers life changing opportunities to one sad sack would-be writer, but it also comes with a mess of trouble in Neil Burger’s Limitless (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Eddie Morra is a listless under-achiever. His girlfriend Lindy has finally given him the dumping he so richly deserved. Despondent, he mopes around the City until he bumps into his ex-brother-in-law Vernon (no, Lindy is not the first woman to issue Morra his walking papers.). Recognizing his former whatever is a bit glum, Vernon gives him a blue Matrix pill, which the big dummy takes for no good reason. Suddenly, Morra can talk his landlord’s wife into bed, dash off her law school paper on Oliver Wendell Holmes, and then churn out his own novel before calling it a night.

Unfortunately, he wakes up as the same old idiot in the morning, which prompts an emergency visit to his dear old ex-brother-in-law. For some reason, the shadowy cabal developing NZT has entrusted its distribution to a pusher leftover from the glory days of Studio 54. Of course, Vernon’s carelessness gets him killed, but Morra gets his stash. Fueled by smarty-pants pills, Morra takes Wall Street by storm, even attracting the attention of Robert De Niro’s shadowy financier, Thurston W. Focker-Gekko, III, or some such.

Morra might be amped on brainiac drugs, but in Limitless’s world any IQ cracking 100 constitutes genius levels. You would think anyone borrowing money from a loan shark for a quick succession of day trades would make a point of paying that off as soon as possible. Not if you’re a genius, evidently. It would have saved so much trouble though.

Indeed, the clichés fly fast and furious throughout Limitless, while the characters are all pretty slow-witted, NZT notwithstanding. The crooked Focker-Gekko (Carl Van Loo) is a particularly tiresome cliché. The film would have been much fresher and far more engaging had we been invited to identify with his character. Watching Van Loo play a chess match against the younger pharmaceutically-enhanced Morra while relying only on twenty percent of his grey matter and his hard-earned experience, could have been intriguing drama, a la Kasparov vs. Deep Blue. Instead, De Niro just looks bored to distraction.

Years ago, only big movies stars had their names above the title. However, in Limitless’s opening credits, both Bradley Cooper and Abbie Cornish are not just billed over the title, but also above De Niro. Are they joking? De Niro might have made a few too many Fockers, but he is still De Niro. Cooper and Cornish on the other hand, are like actor-widgets, blandly attractive here perhaps, but little more. In the film’s most believable scene, a witness fails to pick Morra out of a line-up. Truly, who could blame her? (Still, Cooper's deadpan neo-noir narration is a plus.)

Given a dull cast and a predictable script, Burger tries to compensate with his execution, using a plethora of razzle dazzle, like fish-eye lenses, time-lapse photography, and Matrix-bullet effects. Frankly, it is appreciated. His pacing is fairly tight and he choreographs some clever bits during the action sequences. It is all rather dumb, but at least on some level, he makes it watchable. Entirely skippable, Limitless opens today (3/18) in New York at the AMC Empire 25 and Loews Lincoln Square.

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