Thursday Trailer Face-Off: Limitless vs. The Adjustment Bureau

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Published February 17, 2011

Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: Limitless and The Adjustment Bureau, two films about young men’s potential—and the lengths to which shadowy villains will go to destroy it.

PremiseBoth films are sort of soft-science-fiction “what if?” adventures—once they’re out on DVD, they’ll fit nicely onto your shelf between Vanilla Sky and Inception. In Limitless, schlumpy writer Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) becomes an intellectual powerhouse when he starts taking a drug called MDT that allows him to use his full brain capacity (rather than the 20% that conventional wisdom holds humans actually use). He makes a lot of money in business, and is pursued by hit men—and then the drug starts to run out! In The Adjustment Bureau, David Norris (Matt Damon) is a Congressman who meets a dancer, Elise (Emily Blunt), only to have a team of suits called The Adjustment Bureau explain that they’re responsible for making sure his life goes according to plan, and she’s not in his. Both are promising, but we have to dock Limitless for two things: one, it’s not exactly a new concept (cf.: Flowers for Algernon), and two, we’re supposed to buy Bradley Cooper as a man of incredible intellectual prowess—or, for that matter, an unemployed writer? Bradley Cooper? The guy from The Hangover? Advantage: The Adjustment Bureau

Star PowerAlong with Damon and Blunt, The Adjustment Bureau stars Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog), Anthony Mackie, whom we love, John Slattery (one of the best things about Mad Men), and Daniel Dae Kim (one of the best things about Lost). Joining Cooper in Limitless are Abbie Cornish, who can do no wrong after Bright Star, so far as we’re concerned, Anna Friel, and—here’s the kicker—Robert De Niro. It’s a tough decision, since De Niro is one of America’s greatest living actors, but we have to come back to the leads: Matt Damon is not only infinitely more relatable than Bradley Cooper, he’s also a bigger star. Advantage: The Adjustment Bureau

StyleWe’re a little confused about why it seems everyone in The Adjustment Bureau owns and wears a fedora, but will gladly support any film that finds a way to let John Slattery dress just like he does on Mad Men (and that outfits Emily Blunt in a gorgeous gray silk gown—we want one). As for Limitless, the film accomplishes a nifty little trick in transforming Bradley Cooper from the “slovenly, unkempt writer” look to the “debonair man of the world” look; and the suits he’s wearing after he cleans up his act are very nice indeed. We’d call it a draw, but we’re forced to take points off for something ridiculous that happens in The Adjustment Bureau‘s trailer: “You’d challenge me in those shoes?!” Damon asks at around 0:45, completely incredulous that Blunt would ask him to race. This man is supposedly a New York politician—surely he’s had plenty of dates tottering around on six-inch heels. Yet these aren’t, even: Blunt is clearly wearing low wedge espadrilles—not exactly McQueen lobster claws, and plenty suitable for racing. Come on, guy. Advantage: Limitless

DirectorThe Adjustment Bureau is directed by George Nolfi, a Princeton grad, Marshall Scholarship recipient, and Ph.D. holder—who’s never directed a film before. He’s worked mainly as a screenwriter, most notably for Ocean’s Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum. He also adapted this film. Neil Burger, director of Limitless, is a Yale grad with three films under his belt: Interview with the Assassin, The Illusionist, and The Lucky Ones. Since we’ve heard of at least one of those movies, he wins the category. Advantage: Limitless

Source MaterialBoth films are adaptations. The premise for Limitless comes from a 2001 thriller novel by Alan Glynn called The Dark Fields. It was his first novel (his fourth is due out this fall), and the first of his works to be adapted for the screen. The Adjustment Bureau is based on a short story, “Adjustment Team,” by Philip K. Dick—and without having actually read either one, we’d put our money on the Dick adaptation. His novels and stories typically bear out well on film: consider Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, and the excellent Minority Report, which Spielberg directed in 2002. Advantage: The Adjustment Bureau

MusicThe Adjustment Bureau enlisted Thomas Newman, the prolific and very talented film composer (The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, In the Bedroom, WALL-E) and ten-time Academy Award nominee. Limitless is a little edgier: its music comes from contemporary composer Nico Muhly, the hippest name in classical music (and one of the most in-demand: he’s worked with Björk, Grizzly Bear, and Antony and the Johnsons). Tradition or innovation—it’s a tough call, but we’ll give it to Limitless for its cheekily literal use of a Kanye West song in the trailer. “No one man should have all that power,” Kanye intones, while Bradley Cooper gains exactly that. Advantage: Limitless

DialogueAmong the most fun things about this genre of movie are the vague, foreboding admonitions the protagonist always seems to receive from those around him. “You can’t outrun your fate, David,” Damon is warned in The Adjustment Bureau. “If you stay with her, it not only kills your dreams, it kills hers.” In Limitless, Cooper receives this kind of warning in spades, even from the title cards: “Once the world is yours, everyone wants a piece,” one reads. Late in the trailer, De Niro starts to kick ass: “Your powers are not earned; you’re careless with those powers,” he tells Cooper. “There’s no scenario in which you’d lead this life where you don’t work for me.” He’s just a mite more terrifying (and his threats don’t revolve around some girl the main character just met). Advantage: Limitless

The VerdictDespite the relative likeability of Matt Damon as compared to Bradley Cooper, we’re going to have to go with Limitless: we just can’t get past how silly The Adjustment Bureau seems, what with all the hats and Blunt’s forced-seeming whimsy. We can’t help but feel we’ve seen that movie before. As for Limitless, we’re hoping this movie will be to Robert De Niro what The Devil’s Advocate was to Al Pacino: a chance to play full-on evil. Winner: Limitless