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Bradley Cooper explores the dangers of performance enhancing drugs
Loves: Thrillers, Twilight Zone
Likes: Bradley Cooper
Dislikes: Most recent De Niro films
Hates: unnecessary unrated cuts
I'm a big fan of Twilight Zone-style stories, where the character faces an outlandish, unreal situation that's masking a very real human conflict, which reveals a lot about who we are as people. The thing is, that kind of tale may not play itself out well over the length of a feature, because the stories that work best in this genre tend to be pretty intimate and focused. Well, writer Leslie Dixon (author of many popular, yet critically unlauded films like Loverboy, Look Who's Talking Now and Mrs. Doubtfire) and director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) have given it a shot and that gambit has resulted in an exciting, thoughtful film about what you might do to achieve your dreams if given an easy shortcut.
Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a struggling writer, who can't follow through on his book contract, thanks to a lack of focus and motivation that's already cost him a marriage and threatens his current relationship. A chance encounter with his ex-brother-in-law Vern (the delightfully sleazy Johnny Whitworth) changes everything, as he gets a pill that allows him access to the entirety of his brain and memories, making him superhumanly intelligent (not unlike the Intersect on Chuck.) As a result, he finds himself becoming super-successful as well, but must also face the dark side of the pill, getting ensnared in some problematic relationships as well as the side effects of the medication. The question is, what is enough to satisfy Eddie and when is the cost too high?
Though that sounds like a big morality play, it's actually far more utilitarian, in that Eddie's desires aren't ruled by any kind of expected, heroic moral fiber. He's not a bad guy, but he's no angel either, and that's what makes his struggles, with shadowy forces dogging his every step and with the reactions he's having to the pills, so interesting, because you can't honestly predict how he's going to respond. That's good, because the majority of the film is a flashback, following an opening scene that teases an obvious moment that becomes less obvious as the film progresses. It also makes for a finale you probably won't see coming, even if you've seen past the twists and turns of the plot, which pulls Eddie in several directions at once. It's a moderately complex storyline, not on the level of a Memento, but it also doesn't keep viewers at a distance with artificial constructs and red herrings. The audience essentially experiences the story with Eddie, with his voiceover explaining what we can't see.
Cooper, who I've been a fan of since his star-making role on the short-lived Kitchen Confidential, is perfect for a role that takes his character through four disparate stages of his life, as he can disappear into each smoothly. Put his pre-Pill Eddie next to his finale Eddie, and you might have a trouble recognizing them as the same actor (aside from his trademark blue eyes.) He's malleable, and for a character who's given the chance to reshape who he is, it's a perfect choice. De Niro, whose role seemed larger in the promotion of the film than it really is, is similarly very good here. I'm not a big fan of his recent work, as I feel he mostly trades off the reputation he's built over the decades, but here, it feels like he's playing a part, rather than playing De Niro playing a part, and he really adds to the movie. The same can be said for Whitworth, who makes a real mark despite limited screen time, and Andrew Howard, who plays Gennady, a Russian thug who Eddie gets involved with. The part really had the potential to be just another heavy, but some really fun dialogue from Dixon and a solid performance by Howard turned it into a memorable bad guy.
Burger keeps things moving at a fever pitch throughout, which is an impressive feat, considering the movie is mainly about intelligence. Some rather inventive visual effects (some might consider them gimmicks) help tell a story that's mostly inside Eddie's head, including the effects of the pill and the way he thinks and processes information. Some of it may be a bit over the top, but it pretty much all works toward telling the story, so it's not as if it's purely a bunch of eye-candy (though Burger's so-called "fractal zoom" (a rather cool effect) might be the only thing that serves the visuals more than the tale.) Between this and The Illusionist, this late bloomer has definitely positioned himself to become one of the top visual storytellers in Hollywood.
As for the unrated, extended cut included on this set, there are very limited differences, including some slightly more graphic sexuality, a bit more graphic violence and more cursing. You'd really have to pay close attention to see some of the changes. The Discs
A standard dual-hub Blu-Ray case (inside a foil-enhanced cover-repeating slipcover) holds a Blu-Ray and a Digital Copy of the film. The animated pop-up menu offers options to watch the film, adjust languages, select scenes and check out extras. The audio is available in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and French 5.1 Dolby Digital, while subtitles are available in English SDH, French and Spanish.
The visual creativity on display in Limitless, including manipulation of the color palette, is a huge part of the film's appeal, so the 1080p, AVC-encoded 2.40:1 transfer has to get it right, and it definitely does. Both sides of Eddie's life, the dingy pre-pill world and the bright, shiny enhanced perception, look spot-on, and the intense use of special effects is blended in well, keeping them from being distracting, despite an intensely sharp and detailed image. There are no obvious flaws in the transfer, which points to a fine job by the producers, considering how many opportunities the film's visuals offer for them to mess up.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is an enveloping experience, full of big sound effects, atmospheric touches and fine applications of score and soundtrack, while managing the dialogue excellently. The film attempts to show the main character's scrambled mental state at least partially through some manic sound, and this track gets it just right. At least once, I actually jumped at the impact of a sound effect, and you can't ask for much more than that. The sound on the New York City streets is full of beautiful little touches that come from all directions, a moment that's well-representative of the overall presentation.
The big extra is an audio commentary with Burger, who has an unfortunate habit of describing what's happening on-screen, rather than offering info we can't see. Every now and then he offers up an interesting tidbit, like his story about shooting near the Boston Bruins or notes on the changes from the source book, but these also come amid spots of dead air, which are punctuated by how low the film's audio is the whole way. Another commentator would have helped solve these issues.
An alternate ending has been included, and though it's a bit more believable than what was used in the movie, the final ending is more satisfying and simply entertaining. This however is the ending I expected for the film.
A pair of featurettes are up next, starting with "A Man Without Limits," which runs 4:29, and focuses on Cooper and his character, talking about all the factors that went into Eddie's story, including the costuming and filming techniques, and plenty of apple-polishing for Cooper. "Taking it to the Limit: The Making of Limitless" (11:38) is a well-rounded look behind the scenes of the film's production, covering pretty much all the bases, with plenty of on-set footage, technical info (right down to the kinds of cameras and film stocks used) and interviews with the cast and crew. It provides plenty of insight into the making of a movie and is rather entertaining to boot.
In addition to the theatrical trailer for the film, there's a second disc included with the Blu-Ray, which holds access to a Digital Copy.
The Bottom Line
I didn't expect to enjoy this film as much as I did, and for a film that runs almost two hours, it flies by, thanks to a unique visual style, strong performances by Cooper and company and a genuinely engrossing, Twilight Zone-style fable. The disc looks and sounds very nice, though the extras are more of the OK variety, than the must-see. Anyone who enjoys a movie that offers a well-told "What if?" story should check out Limitless, which does a fine job of asking what being great is worth.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.