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B-movie 'Limitless' is loads of fun

Let's compare and contrast. Yes, I know teachers force it on students for high school English papers, but you do it, too, when you buy a car or a jar of peanut butter.

So here's how it went with me at the dandy, fast-moving new B-thriller "Limitless": I had more fun watching it than I did watching either "Inception" or "The Adjustment Bureau" -- and maybe even more than I did at Oliver Stone's snappily written but inconsequential "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps."

"Limitless" doesn't have a big idea anywhere in its beautifully photographed and entertaining head. Believe me, it could if it wanted to. That's because it's a snappy, witty thriller about a super drug that turns people into super beings but has some unfortunate side effects when abused, including headaches, a limp, dementia and premature death. (Cocaine or Ritalin allegory, anyone?)

One day our non-hero, Eddie (played by Bradley Cooper of "The Hangover" fame), is an ultra-scruffy writer, scrounging around the streets of Manhattan. True, he's got an advance on a book contract, but he's also got such monstrous writer's block he has yet to get past the first word of Page One. His girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) is so disgusted she announces she's leaving him. His ex-wife decided long ago that she didn't want anything to do with him.

And then, into a life that seems to have infinite room for downward mobility, along comes his drug-dealing ex-brother-in-law with a brand new pill he wants to pass along -- on the house.

He works for Big Pharma now. And the drug is a little thing called NZT-48. The FDA approval has already happened, says Slimeball, the ex-brother-in-law. It just needs more testing. So here, have a pill that allows people to use all of their brain rather than the piddling 20 percent we normally make do with.

Eddie's life couldn't get much worse, right? Why not try the thing, as reptilian as his ex-brother-in-law has always proven to be?

The rest is the movie: Eddie completes his novel lickety-split, becomes a Wall Street genius, dodges Russian loan sharks and brokers the biggest corporate merger since lord knows when. Add minor elements, then, of "Inception" and "The Adjustment Bureau" and "Wall Street 3," subtract all their frequently insufferable ambitions and you've got a movie that's swift, entertaining as hell and best of all, steadfastly allergic to pretense.

If Christopher Nolan were at the helm of this little fantasy, you can bet your library card it would be up to its sprockets in meaningful meditations of life as a Nietzschean superman.

Cooper -- a B-movie actor who lucked into the Double-A smash of "The Hangover" -- is the perfect star for this. Robert De Niro is, for a change, ideal as the dark, nasty Wall Street grandee who wants to chain the new superbrain to well-paid involuntary servitude. De Niro slumming is not exactly an inspiration these days, but he chose well here.

The director is Neil Burger, a talented fellow who directed the lesser of a sudden pair of movies about turn-of-the-last-century magicians five years ago -- a movie called "The Illusionist" (no relation to the recent French animated feature) that wasn't quite as good as Nolan's "The Prestige" but was still pretty nifty in its own right.

This is interesting: Nolan's "The Prestige" was about the rivalry of two magicians.

So here, after Nolan's "Inception" -- a stunning but over-the-top mega-fantasy about a prodigy seduced into dangerous dream thievery -- is Burger's visually flamboyant but much-smaller-scaled fantasy about a schlub turned into a prodigy by a drug that seems certain to kill him one way or another.

A much, much smaller film than "Inception" with almost no major expectations and only one major star in it -- and even he is a guy who now has a reputation for making too many crummy movies.

Are Burger and Nolan secret rivals? Well, I'm telling you this is good, minor fun.

You want to know why American movie critics have always liked B-movies so much? It's not because the Don Siegels of this world graduate from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" into "Dirty Harry." It's because the B-movies are so good in the first place.




3 1/2 stars (out of 4)    

Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving drugs, violence including disturbing images, sexuality and language. 105 minutes.

Opened Friday in area theaters.

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