A thriller about “smart” people shouldn’t be so dumb, but Neil Burger’s Limitless is still a helluva lot of fun. The premise is irresistible: you’re only using 20% of your brain at any given time, so they say, what if you could pop a pill and unlock the true potential of your mind? Read books in hours, learn languages in days, master the stock market, be healthy, wealthy, and wise.
Taking this to its extreme, the film becomes something unique: a joyful pro-drug parable for our pill-popping generation. On the run from baddies, hiding out, in a bind? Just take one of these and think your way out of the situation and around or through your opponents. Sure, side effects may include illness and death and possibly homicidal blackouts – but taken in moderation, your life can be improved dramatically.
Bradley Cooper stars as Eddie Morra, a fledgling writer at a standstill in life who lacks motivation or ambition; his apartment is a mess, he’s behind on his rent, he hasn’t written a word towards his new book, and his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) has just left him. But a chance encounter with (another) ex-girlfriend’s drug dealing brother (Johnny Whitworth) introduces him to NZT, the miracle drug described above.
Eddie is skeptical, but tries it on a lark. Suddenly, everything becomes clear. And with that, Eddie is off – he turns a potentially unpleasant confrontation with the landlord’s wife into a coital encounter, cleans up his flat, and finishes half his book. After the effects wear off, he’s back to where he was – in his head, at least.
He needs more of the drug, and obtains a limited supply through unpleasant circumstances. He also needs more money (don’t we all?) and borrows some from Russian Mafioso Gennady (Andrew Howard) before making a name for himself in the market and going to work for millionaire power broker Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro).
Limitless is fast, loose, and lots of fun – as long as you don’t think too hard about what you’re watching. The narrative, from a script by Leslie Dixon, is a tangled mess of contrivances, illogic behavior, credibility issues, and unresolved story strands: hired goons chase our hero and murder innocent bystanders in Central Park during the middle of the day; after tripling or quadrupling his money in a day, Eddie claims “it’s not fast enough” before borrowing $100,000 from the mob – but at his current rate, he should have made that much in just a few more days; a murder mystery subplot is completely dropped by the end.
But hey – the film doesn’t concern itself with these issues, so why should we? Bradley Cooper (who also served as executive producer) had been mostly relegated to supporting roles in romantic comedies before hitting it big with The Hangover in 2009; Limitless is the first feature that he’s had to carry by himself, and he does a reasonable job – he’s mostly likable, even if we sometimes want to wipe that smirk off his face.
The supporting cast has little to do, though De Niro is particularly effective in his limited screen time. Ditto Cornish, who tries hard to bring some life to her underwritten character.
Limitless is somewhat of a departure for director Burger, whose previous projects include the low-budget thriller Interview with the Assassin and the period drama The Illusionist (both are excellent, by the way).
It’s an entirely mainstream-skewing experience that allows for less ambition, story-wise, but Burger brings plenty of style to the table: the drug trip sequences are especially fun, with Eddie watching duplicates of himself and the camera zooming into infinity across New York City streets (the opening credits also make use of this technique; it’s vaguely disorienting, but I could watch it for hours.)
The ending, besides a great exchange between Cooper and De Niro, mostly drops the ball; it fails to take the story into the naturally darker material of Alan Glynn’s novel (‘something is missing here’, you might wonder).
Limitless ain’t high art. But if, without the aid of NZT, you can shut your brain off for 100 minutes, you’ll enjoy this ride.