Pinning down what makes a real movie star click with an audience is tricky.
When Tom Cruise was riding high, it was that self-confident grin. Ditto for Clark Gable way back when. Dustin Hoffman was able to suggest an Everyman quality, but smarter and with a twinkle in his eye. Robert De Niro was the single most intense man in the room — you never knew what he was going to do next, but you sure wanted to be there to see it.
The mark of a true star is that even when he or she is in a movie that isn’t especially good, audiences are willing to sit through it for the pleasure, admittedly vicariously via celluloid, of being in good company.
If that’s the threshold, Bradley Cooper, who is asked to carry “Limitless” on his buff shoulders, just may be a genuine star.
He certainly has the basic requirements: the blond good looks, the swagger, and the startlingly bluest eyes this side of Paul Newman.
“Limitless,” a suspense thriller that starts off well but then gets mired in its own plot complications, is unlikely to generate enough heat at the box office to propel Cooper into mega-stardom. But what it does answer — and with a resounding yes — is the question of whether the 36-year-old actor has the juice to power a movie on his lonesome. (His recent appearances in “Hangover,” “Valentine’s Day” and “The A-Team” were as part of ensembles.)
In “Limitless,” directed by Neil Burger (“The Lucky Ones”), Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a would-be novelist way down on his luck. His fortunes turn once he begins gobbling a secret, experimental drug that allows his brain to work at nearly superhuman capacity. He writes a brilliant novel in days, makes a fortune trading on Wall Street and becomes the adviser to a powerful corporate raider (Robert De Niro) working on a high stakes, secret business deal.
It’s all upside until Eddie starts experiencing extended blackouts, is followed by threatening-looking goons and learns that the cool-looking, translucent pills he has been popping have major deleterious side effects.
It’s all a lot of fun while Eddie is headed up. Cooper gives an energetic edge to his portrait of a failure who’s able to turn his life around with a little pharmaceutical help; Eddie’s so happily jazzed by his good fortune that you can’t help but root for him.
It’s when Eddie begins to sense that things are falling apart and has to figure out a way save himself and those he cares about (a girlfriend played by Abbie Cornish, in a role so minute her star billing seems a cruel joke), that the movie slides downward. Its story machinations start to grind loudly and plot holes begin to gape.
Rather than being a clever mind-bender like "Inception" or "Memento," the movie reminds one of a more suspenseful, less romantic version of 1996's "Phenemenon" or 2003's "Bruce Almighty." In the first, a regular guy (John Travolta) becomes brilliant due to — it is eventually revealed — a brain tumor; in the second, a TV reporter became an all-powerful genius after God decides to let him know just how difficult it is to run the world. Like those two films, "Limitless" can't quite figure out an ending smart enough to match its hero's new brain power.
Cooper, though, has the magnetism and energy to make you believe that it’s worth sticking around to see how Eddie will be able to get through this mess. In an era when so many rising leading men in his age range seem either lightweight and hopelessly second-tier (Matthew McConaughey or Luke Wilson, anyone?) or suited primarily for comedies (Paul Rudd, Russell Brand), Cooper serves notice here he’s ready for bigger and more serious things.