The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Robert DeNiro is in awe of Bradley Cooper's awesomeness in Limitless.

We've all had times in our lives when we have felt incompetent or unable to rise to the occasion. The frustration comes from wishing that we could be better than we are. In those moments, wouldn't it be nice to swallow a pill that would instantly make you smarter, more capable, and able to perform at your highest level of functioning? Eddie Morra (played by Bradley Cooper) has such an opportunity in Limitless, a movie that gets a lot of mileage out of good old-fashioned wish fulfillment.

Eddie is a struggling writer. He's got a book deal, but can't seem to organize his story idea into words. He has already been through one painful divorce, and his relationship with current girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) isn't going much better. One afternoon, Eddie runs into his former brother-in-law, a former drug dealer who claims to now be working for a legit pharmaceutical company. He gives Eddie a tiny pill called NZT as a parting gift, claiming that it will help him figure a few things out in life. The pill, not yet on the market, allows one to use 100% of one's brain functioning, as opposed to the oft-quoted 20% we actually do use. Eddie pops the NZT and suddenly has everything figured out. His energy is boundless. He learns to play musical instruments and speak foreign languages in only a few days. He invents a complicated algorithm to predict the stock market. And, most importantly, he knows how to write his book. Without giving spoilers, I'll just say that he also manages to get his hands on a small stash of the drug, allowing this super-productivity to continue.

The drug does not come without complications, though. Eddie is first wooed by Carl Van Loon (Robert DeNiro), a financial mogul who pressures him to work his magic in service of the world's largest business merger. Then he begins to notice some strange side effects from the NZT, including passages of time where he blacks out. A local gangster from whom he borrowed money blackmails him into sharing his already short supply of the drug. Then there's the mysterious, knife-wielding man who seems to be following him everywhere he goes. Eddie has to find a way to outsmart everyone before his supply runs out, rendering him an average Joe again.

The early scenes of Limitless have fun with the idea of an "awesome pill." Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) uses some inventive visuals to show us how Eddie's brain activity gears up. For instance, while figuring out how to make money on the stock market, the ceiling tiles in his apartment display numbers and start flipping around to illustrate his mental calculations. Another effective scene finds Eddie being attacked on a subway platform. The drug allows him to access every kung fu movie he ever saw and every bit of self-defense strategy he was ever remotely aware of; suddenly, he's a fighting machine.

By exploiting its difficult-to-resist premise, Limitless hooked me from the start. The plot continually puts Eddie in more dire situations. Initially, the NZT helps him stroll through these problems, but eventually it becomes apparent that the side effects are causing him to get sick, which means he'll have to use his own natural brainpower to survive. And as we see at the beginning, his natural brainpower isn't so great. The level of suspense and interest generated by the movie is always fun because so much seems to hang in the balance.

At times, the screenplay by Leslie Dixon bites off more than it can chew, storywise. There are a lot of little subplots - a murder, a corporate merger, a romance, etc. - that shoot off in different directions; one of them, while seemingly important, is largely abandoned, with no satisfactory payoff ever given. Then, late in the film, things go to a needlessly violent place that feels out of sync with everything else.

If not as penetrating as it might have been with a little more focus, Limitless is still consistently entertaining. Bradley Cooper proves to be effective as Eddie in both schlep mode and genius mode, serving as our guide through a journey that asks the intriguing question: What does it mean to be extraordinary, and is it really all its cracked up to be?

( out of four)

Limitless is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving a drug, violence including disturbing images, sexuality and language. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.