It’s probably telling that the 2011 movie Limitless was directed by Neil Burger, director of the brilliant fantasy film The Illusionist, starring Paul Giamatti. Strangely marketed as a movie about a dead-end would-be writer that finds a way to gain intelligence by using more of his brain than the ordinary guy, Limitless is a film the studio just didn’t understand. It is listed in various places, in reviews, in marketing lists and DVD sales notations as each of the following: fantasy, drama, science fiction, thriller, mystery, urban fantasy. It is neither and yet it is all that. Above all it is a superhero film. Yesterday we reviewed the new comic book series Uncanny, and we previously reviewed the new series Dream Thief. These are only recent examples of an ordinary guy gaining strange powers. Bradley Cooper’s Eddie Morra gains similar extraordinary abilities in Limitless. In the process of honing these powers, he’d fit right in with another tale of the X-Men.
Flowers for Algernon is a science fiction short story and subsequent novel written by Daniel Keyes, later made into a classic film starring Cliff Robertson, called Charly. Charly is a guy who gains intelligence through medicine, only to revert to his prior state by story’s end. From marketing for Limitless you’d think that was what was happening in Limitless. But that is only the beginning, as we’re steered through a cleverly crafted and well-paced adventure that is a cut above the basic non-genre story about drug use. A modern-day story about a deadbeat using drugs… sounds boring. Thankfully it’s not at all boring, and the biggest surprise is that Bradley Cooper–People’s Sexiest Man Alive and Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper–can actually act, rising above passable roles in Wedding Crashers and The Hangover. In fact, Cooper’s Eddie belongs in a class with notable fantasy characters such as Bill Murray’s Phil Connors in Groundhog Day and Ethan Hawke’s Vincent Freeman in Gattaca, and even the real-life character John Nash in A Beautiful Mind.
Morra’s source for his new ability–his powers–is a drug called NZT that his brother-in-law gives him just before he is murdered. NZT at first just helps Morra to focus, but soon it also helps him to learn quickly, similar to the protagonist in Uncanny. He gains not just the power to be smarter or use his brain more than anyone else but to swiftly and smartly adapt, to be pragmatic and actually improve himself. He soon becomes the Bruce Wayne (not of movies but of comic books) we love, Sherlock Holmes, Shawn Spencer from Psych, all characters with extraordinary abilities of observation.
Proof this is a superhero movie can be found in the numerous analogies to M. Night Shyamalan’s similarly titled film Unbreakable, starring Bruce Willis as an everyday Joe who has the ability to survive anything that comes his way. Specifically what comes to mind are the superhero archetypes–Morra to Bruce Willis’s David Dunn and comparisons of Samuel L. Jackson’s powerful and unlikely villain Elijah Price to Robert De Niro’s (horribly named) similar nemesis, business tycoon Carl Van Loon. De Niro even refers to Eddie “leaping buildings in a single bound” — yes, Morra is a bit Superman, and yes, De Niro is a bit Lex Luthor. Their epic battle at the end is a perfect end to the movie.
Morra has the potential to use his abilities for evil–and at the end of the film we see him rise to become a U.S. Senator. Will he become the Greg Stillson from Stephen King’s The Dead Zone and be the ruin of us all?
You owe it to yourself to rent this one to find out.