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Movie Review

Limitless

Like its hero, ‘Limitless’ is both messy and smart

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / March 18, 2011

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Occasionally, while I’m folding laundry or waiting for the airlines to realize how bad their hold music is, I’ll have this thought: Why do I so dislike Bradley Cooper? The body of that hair, that forever tan, those teeth that gleam even through a smirk. He seems redundant in an industry that already has Matthew McConaughey. Yet the movies Cooper has been in (“He’s Just Not That Into You,’’ “The Hangover,’’ “The A-Team’’) leave him many watts of stardom away from McConaughey (who isn’t exactly the biggest bulb in the Hollywood socket). Cooper is more like Jessica Biel: a table with good legs and a better agent.

The movies suggest he’s an actor for a moment in which men are prized for exuding a kind of lightly sleazy, certainly vain, cologne — Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man,’’ Ben Affleck in “The Town,’’ Jake Gyllenhaal in “Love & Other Drugs,’’ Ashton Kutcher in “No Strings Attached,’’ Seth Rogen in anything. Cooper is 36 and still seems to smell of prep school and frat parties. He’s hedge funds and trust funds; pickup lines and divorce court; Heineken and Nicorette. In “Wedding Crashers,’’ he played a guy named Sack Lodge. It’s one of those amazing instances in which a character’s name really is a persona’s address. A moviegoer should bring protection.

Of course, about 20 minutes into “Limitless,’’ his new movie and first solo vehicle, I realized exactly why I hate Bradley Cooper: Because I think I love him. You know how it is. It’s easier to roll your eyes rather than bat them. You resist, because succumbing to a man who makes potential movie stardom seem cheap and easy reeks of hypocrisy. To love him is to contradict yourself. But, for now, I’m willing to risk the conflict.

“Limitless’’ casts Cooper as Eddie Morra, a distracted Manhattan writer whose fortunes change after he starts taking a pill that turns him into a focused genius. You laugh, I laugh, but Cooper doesn’t, and that’s the shrewdest thing about the movie: He believes in himself. The movie is too chaotic to be very good. But it’s fun and not stupid, which is something. When it begins, Eddie is a disheveled mess. His book — something about “the plight of the individual in the 21st century’’ — is past due, as are both his rent and his ability to be more of an adult for his up-and-coming-publisher girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish, with nothing to do).

Eddie runs into his former brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth), a drug dealer pushing a designer product called NZT. It looks like a shower-curtain chad. Eddie pops one and becomes, according to his narration, a “sparkling cocktail of useful information.’’ The movie gets a contact high. Its dingy look turns bright in the way that, in certain cleanser ads, mildew on a toilet fades to blinding white. Sadly, when he’s off the drug the mildew returns.

On NZT and courtesy of a montage, Eddie seduces his landlady, cleans and organizes his apartment, finishes a draft of his novel. The director, Neil Burger, uses pinball-like sounds, has letters rain down around Cooper as he types, and sends the camera pivoting this way and that. Eddie teaches himself languages, math, the piano, medicine. He jet-sets, thrill-seeks, and day-trades. It’s all part of a master plan that also requires access to the financial industry, which he enters and becomes such a whiz that he wins the skeptical attention of a business titan played by an appealingly dour Robert De Niro.

This being a thriller in addition to everything else it is, “Limitless’’ requires Eddie and inevitably Lindy to flee the baddies who wants Eddie’s ill-gotten stash of NZT. There’s also a Slavic leg-breaker (Andrew Howard). It’s a wonder that with all the movie’s science-fiction foot chases they fail to bump into Anthony Mackie and John Slattery running after Matt Damon in “The Adjustment Bureau.’’ Leslie Dixon wrote the script from Alan Glynn’s 2001 novel “The Dark Fields,’’ which has tinges of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. But I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover that the whole thing was based on a New York magazine article (“NZT: the hot smart drug you’re not on. Yet’’).

Burger works at an involving clip that’s probably meant to keep us from minding the many loose ends and other nonsense (including perilous side effects, a mysteriously dead model, and a political campaign). With a little risk, this could have produced a stronger, stranger, darker movie. (There are limits after all.) The movie, instead, is merely a manic entertainment that makes a case for its lead actor to be taken seriously as a star.

For as much as he seems like bootleg McConaughey, Cooper might be more interesting than that. “Limitless’’ is basically an addiction thriller in which the thirst is for the acquisition and execution of knowledge. So you need an actor who seems surprised by how smart he is but not afraid to be charmingly intelligent. Cooper turns out to be perfect for the part. McConaughey, whose latest movie, “The Lincoln Lawyer,’’ also begins saturating movie theaters today, might have overapplied his drawling cockiness, which needs only the exuberant self-confidence Cooper provides. When he uses a word like “abstemious,’’ he sounds as if he knows what it means. Meanwhile, I’m abstemious no more. Take me to Sack Lodge.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wesley_morris.

LIMITLESS

Directed by: Neil Burger

Adapted by: Leslie Dixon, from the novel “The Dark Fields,’’ by Alan Glynn.

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, and Robert De Niro

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 93 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (thematic material involving a drug, violence including disturbing images, sexuality, language, and the desperate lapping up of blood)

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