There’s a scene early on in Limitless, the enjoyably fanciful but squint-and-it-sort-of-looks-plausible brainiac thriller that opened at number one this weekend, that captures why Bradley Cooper is going to be a major movie star. (What, you say, he already was a major movie star in The Hangover? I’d quibble with that, but won’t annoy you with my carping for another paragraph.) In Limitless, Cooper starts out all earnest and disheveled, in scraggly long hair — he’s like Ben Stiller’s hippie-graduate-student brother — but then he gets hold of a powerful, untested pharmaceutical drug that allows him to tap his unused mental capacity. When the first rush hits him, he’s on the stairwell of a crummy New York walk-up, trying to talk his way past his landlord’s wife, who is threatening him with eviction. Instead of fighting her off, he starts to figure things out about her — like the fact that she’s a law student — and within moments, he has won her over to his side. The scene works because Cooper makes his sudden Sherlockian powers of observation completely convincing, then turns deduction into seduction, and does it all so lightly that he gets you right onto his wavelength of nimble motormouth aggression. And that’s what he does, more or less, for the rest of the movie.
In Limitless, Cooper is so fast and intense and dashing in his agility that I kept wondering why I didn’t respond to him more in The Hangover, where he played the straight man to Ed Helms’s poor, whipped, incisorless dentist and Zack Galifianakis’s screw-loose slobbo Teddy bear. That was part of it, of course: Helms and Galifianakis got just about all the movie’s good lines (which is to say, all eight or nine them). But when I went back and watched The Hangover again this weekend, I still thought that Cooper looked slightly uncomfortable in it — at once testy and smarmy, with an I’m Too Sexy For This Concept sheen. I never bought that he was a high school teacher, or that he’d be doing a Vegas trip with these guys — and the thing is, he didn’t look like he bought it either. He acted superior to his surroundings, like a frat-house president with a very rich dad, which may be why, when he expressed his irritation, it came off as almost too sincere, as if it were irritation with the movie. The Hangover was a neo-’80s smash, and Cooper ruled over it like the Judd Nelson of party-all-night loser-schmucks.
But watching Limitless, I think I know why Cooper, in The Hangover, came off as so unctuously detached. Despite that movie, and his subsequent cool-jerk action clowning in The A-Team, he’s not really a cut-up (which is what his big-screen roles thus far have mostly called for). He’s got a shade too much gravitas for that. He is, I think, an essentially serious actor, even if he often looks like he should be modeling Armani suits on a Times Square billboard. And that’s why Limitless, while set to be just a moderate hit (especially next to The Hangover, Part II, due two months from now), could be the film that repositions his entire career. It’s the first movie to really make dramatic use of his thin-lipped, slightly severe, Ralph Fiennes-meets-Mickey Rourke handsomeness, which it treats — in classic movie-star fashion — as a projection of his cool interior mastery once his new, exalted brain power kicks in. In Limitless, Cooper’s cobalt-blue eyes look brighter than any actor’s eyes you’ve ever seen (have they been digitally heightened? Or is that their real color?), and they lend him a fascinating double quality: a matinee-idol confidence blended with a touch of shimmery-electric panic — not fear, exactly, but a glint of the kind of live-wire anxiety that animated Al Pacino’s performances in the ’70s. I’m not saying that he’s on Pacino’s level. Not yet. But Cooper, it’s now clear, has a gift for playing super-smart, self-reliant heroes who can dance on the dark side. And in age that values speed of thought, especially when it can cut through moral murk, that gift, I suspect, will take him far.
So who saw Bradley Cooper in Limitless this weekend? What did you think of him? Do you agree with me that he’s got the makings of a serious movie star? And what sort of role should he do now?