Most drug movies glamorize the use and/or distribution of narcotics before telling the ugly truth about the addiction or jail time that follows and the shady figures that inhabit society’s underbelly. Taking characters from point A to point B and finally to their lowest point is a formulaic but effective storyline that shows how substance abuse destroys lives. It worked for Blow Scarface and The Basketball Diaries but in Limitless director Neil Burger ignores that successful blueprint and essentially says “Do drugs kids! They’ll help you! And don’t worry it’ll all work out in the end!”
Of course a more familiar narrative precedes this self-serving unorthodox conclusion and it could’ve worked if Burger navigated the story with more focus. The film begins when struggling novelist and all around slob Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) who has a permanent case of writer’s block runs into his drug-peddling-ex-brother-in-law in Manhattan (what are the odds?) This slimy fellow gives him an experimental pill called NZT that clears its users mind and helps them focus. When he ingests it his long-gestating novel is completed in a matter of hours and his grimy apartment is made-over to look like a room at the Ritz Carlton. The pace of the picture picks up quickly as Eddie climbs New York City’s social and corporate ladders acquiring wealth power women and the attention of greedy entrepreneurs ruthless gangsters and assassins who want the drug themselves.
The high-concept premise presented storytelling potential as expansive as the title suggests but Limitless is hampered by a series of discrepancies that render it silly and disjointed. Some of the smaller ones are relatively insignificant and won’t hinder the experience but others (such as the lethal effects of the drug which conveniently don’t apply to our protagonist) defy the internal logic that screenwriter Leslie Dixon sets up. It’s also hard to ignore how useless a handful of the sub-plots are. Abbie Cornish’s character starts out as motivation for Cooper’s but her relevance lessens as the stakes are raised and Eddie slips further into the worlds of finance and crime. The same can be said of the Russian gangster whose arc begins when he lends Eddie some capital for an investment and ends in a pulpy bloodbath. Burger leads you to believe that these side-stories will have greater impact on the bottom line but by the time the film wraps it becomes clear that they’ve collectively convoluted the plot.
It is however entirely possible that the filmmakers’ goal was to make a movie that mimics the incoherent mind-bending state that hallucinogens induce and in that sense Limitless works. Burger builds on that idea by visualizing the effects of NZT with unusual camera techniques including abrupt changes in color editing tricks that revisit the action in reverse (sort of) and a great time/spatial elapsing effect that literally pulls the viewer through Eddie’s lengthy drug coma. The dizzying display of surreal imagery is the films greatest gimmick designed to draw your attention away from its weaknesses.
At its core Limitless is about excess: excess of knowledge power money etc. and fittingly excess is one of its biggest problems. The filmmakers force too much upon their movie from unnecessary fight scenes to sexual encounters with metropolitan socialites that ironically water down its potency instead of giving it more edginess. Like any drug it starts out as something refreshing and stimulating but when you come down you’re stuck wondering where the last few hours went.
The premise to Old School sounds a bit cringe-worthy when you first hear it--visions of sexist frat house humor wild parties buxom babes and beer bongs dance through your head. OK maybe there's a little of that going on in Old School but the heart of the film is surprisingly more centered than your average balls-out comedy. A trio of twentysomething friends have found themselves at a crossroads in their lives. Mitch (Luke Wilson) a promising real estate lawyer unfortunately catches his girlfriend (Juliette Lewis) in a compromising position. Frank (Will Ferrell) a lovable doof marries the sweet Marissa (Perrey Reeves) before realizing he made a big mistake and Beanie (Vince Vaughn) the owner of a successful chain of stereo stores refuses to believe he is the only true family man of the three. When Mitch rents a house near their old alma mater Beanie sees it as a chance to recapture some of that fun-filled college exuberance and turns the house into a fraternity which accepts not just students but any guys out there who want to escape adulthood's travails. The film's antagonist comes in the form of an uptight university dean Pritchard (Jeremy Piven) who bears an old grudge against our intrepid trio and does everything he can to shut the house down. But true brotherhood prevails.
Old School works far better than it should thanks to the chemistry of the three leads. Each has his own particular brand of comedy and the combination keeps you rolling in the aisles. Providing physical comedy Ferrell's Frank a goofy college wild man tamed by matrimony is wonderfully outrageous (but someone should tell him to keep his clothes on). Ferrell also shows a dramatic flair especially when dealing with his troubled marriage. Who would have thought this Saturday Night Live alum could act? Vaughn shows his infinite skill at zingin' out quick-witted one-liners (as he does so well in Swingers). Yet his smarmy Beanie also hints that he loves his life as a stable dad more than he cares to admit. Then there's the likable straight man Mitch a character the easygoing Wilson has perfected to a tee ever since his debut in Bottle Rocket opposite wacky brother Owen. Piven who usually plays wild men in films such as PCU and Very Bad Things gets to try on a different hat as Pritchard the nerd who grew up to be the dean of the school--and it looks like he had fun.
Writer/director Todd Phillips obviously enjoyed his college years. His first studio-released film the 2000 Road Trip offered a raucous yet refreshing look at college life that didn't necessarily go for the gross-out humor at every turn (although some turns were certainly made especially given star Tom Green). With Old School Phillips has matured--a little. Thankfully the film doesn't go for the joke for the joke's sake but remains rooted in how these three men are dealing with the pressures of adult responsibilities coming up with their somewhat misguided remedy to those pressures. But it's still a comedy about aging frat boys. You know going in there's going to be a wild party or two some contemptible drunken behavior perhaps even a hazing scene where new recruits have cinder blocks tied to their nether regions. It happens. Phillips also feels the need to incorporate a clichéd romantic twist around Mitch and a girl he had a crush on in high school. A sweet gesture but not nearly as entertaining as watching three grown men slosh around in K-Y jelly in a female wrestling match.