Faust Times at New York, High.

The Faust legend is rooted in our culture, so much so that it’s become an adjective – Faustian – and it’s given us common phrases such as “Make a deal with the Devil” and “Hell to pay.”  The story continues to exert an influence.  The latest example is the movie Limitless, which was released on DVD this week.

When the movie opens, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is on edge.  Literally in this case, since he’s standing on the wall of his apartment’s balcony, looking down forty or fifty floors at the street below, while Russian mobsters cut through his apartment’s security door.  It seems the only choice he’s left with is the how he wants to die, which he finds ironic since up until recently he was the smartest man in the world.

The story jumps back to when this arc of his life began.  Eddie is an author in the midst of a case of world-class writer’s block.  He’s just lost his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish), who has been supporting him but has finally given up trying to save him.  The endearing aspect of Eddie is that he’s completely aware that he’s a pathetic loser.  He tells you so in the voice over narration that runs throughout the movie.  It’s a nice touch, supporting the character being an author.

A chance meeting with Vernon, his former brother-in-law from a brief marriage after college, changes Eddie’s life.   Vernon (Johnny Whitworth) had always been slightly shady, but now he’s dressed in fine clothes and says he’s working as a drug company representative.  When Eddie confesses over drinks that he’s blocked in his writing, Vernon gives him a sample of a new drug that he says will help him.  On the way home, Eddie pops the pills.  In a wonderfully filmed sequence with his landlord’s girlfriend, Eddie realizes the drug open every synapse of his brain, allowing him to pull together forgotten tidbits of knowledge and reorder them into brilliant insights.  (The movie makes thinking a thrilling exercise.)  In short order, Eddie writes enough of his book to stun his editor and revive his career.  But then the drug wears off.  It looks like Eddie will have to become Vernon’s servant to get more, but when he returns to Vernon’s apartment after a trip to the dry cleaners, he finds Vernon murdered and the apartment ransacked.  Eddie discovers where Vernon hid his stash of the drug and takes it.

That’s the beginning of a roller coaster ride for Eddie.  He uses his insights to play the stock market, though he needs help from the Russian mobster Gennady (Andrew Howard) to bankroll his start.  Eddie’s success brings him to the attention of Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), a Wall Street legend who makes Wall Street‘s Gordon Gecko seem warm and fuzzy.  Hovering in the shadows, though, is a killer bent on recovering Eddie’s drug stash and obliterating anyone who knows of the drug.  And then there are the blackouts.

Limitless was directed by Neil Burger, who also directed and wrote the screenplay for The Illusionist in 2006.  Burger uses shots and sequences to give you the same rush that Eddie feels as he travels through New York City.  (In the theater it came close to give the audience motion sickness.)  This is a twisty thriller that keeps you enthralled right up to the last frame.

Bradley Cooper had been mostly cast in supporting roles, such as Sydney Bristow’s friend on the TV show Alias or in light comedies like He’s Just Not That Into You.  With The Hangover he showed he could carry the lead role, but with Limitless he cements his leading man status.  Recently Robert De Niro has been sleepwalking through comedic roles.  As Van Loon, though, he’s convincingly menacing, like a mature, wealthy version of Travis Bickle.  Abby Cornish has a thrilling action sequence where she’s targeted by the killer tracking Eddie.  To escape from him in the middle of Central Park, she has to use the drug.   However her reaction afterward cements her as the emotional heart of the movie.  She also serves as the Eternal Feminine who, as in Goethe’s retelling of the Faust legend, offers the chance for redemption to Eddie.

At 105 minutes, Limitless races by with pacing that hardly gives you a chance to breath.  I saw the movie twice in the theater.  After your first viewing you may find yourself wanting to buy another ticket to take this rollercoaster ride again.

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