You’d expect something unusual to happen in a humorous sci-fi action movie such as Limitless, and it does. But it’s not the pill that triple boosts the hero’s brain power; it’s not the p.o.v. shots that make the pill’s first effects look like a super groovy acid trip; or even the multiple fights the non-pugilistic pill popper wins through a supercharged learning ability.
No, it comes in a domestic scene between newly empowered and enriched Eddie Mara (Bradley Cooper) and his off-and-on girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) after a night of renewed intimacy. In the bright light of day (expensive apartment=big windows), the two start to argue over Eddie’s overuse and addiction to the pills. He says his new-found energy and brilliance, and the wealth it generates is worth it; she says his personality change, which is beginning to manifest itself in ruthlessness, is too high a price to pay.
The scene is a crucial moment in the leads’ relationship and also a turning point in the audience’s assessment of the darkening Eddie. And director Neil Burger shoots and cuts it perfectly, playing perfectly for the subtly important scene that it is.
Whenever you hear someone say that a movie is “technically” or “visually” special, he or she is usually referring to flamboyant effects or bravura action bits. But a real director’s talents are most clearly on display in what might appear to be simple conversations which are never all that simple. For the morning after scene between Eddie and Lindy, Burger switches between an unusually big number (for nowadays) of camera set-ups, uses focal lengths judiciously, and cuts the scene together so that it is as lively as the conversation and alert to the nuances of the lovers’ changing feelings.
There are other such choices in the movie, too. When it comes time to shoot Robert De Niro, who plays an evil investment banker, in close-up, Burger makes sure the actor’s head doesn’t eat up the whole frame. De Niro has turned into such an overemphatic performer over the last few years, that a tight-close-up just joins aural shouting to visual screaming. Burger gets us to concentrate on the face’s emotional contours without leaving us overwhelmed.
I never took Burger for such a talent before. His previous movie, The Illusionist (2006), struck me as pretentious and overstated. Maybe I’ll go back and watch it again.