Limitless is a story about smart people who make bad choices that turn them into even smarter people, who then make worse choices. It’s a light, well-made action-thriller about kickass unearned power and privilege, which brings the fun but never quite shows us the dark side that it keeps threatening to.
Bradley Cooper (The Hangover, A-Team) stars as Eddie Mara, a borderline-failed writer/ definitely-failed human being who has recently been dumped by his long-suffering girlfriend. A chance encounter with an old acquaintance introduces him to a black market pharmaceutical drug called NZT that allows the user access to the full potential of his brain. Suddenly, Eddie is using his Beautiful Mind-like abilities to write novels, charm socialites, win back his girlfriend, and succeed in business without really trying. But everything comes with a price, and Eddie soon discovers the side effects of both his new drug and the rapid career ascent he has made.
The script (by Leslie Dixon, adapted from a novel by Alan Glynn) is sharp and fun, providing some fun and surprising applications for Eddie’s mental abilities. An early scene where he encounters his furious landlady, only to charm and seduce her while writing her entire law school paper is a great example of how Eddie’s heightened mental abilities work. Cooper fits the role like a glove, slipping easily between Eddie’s early self-defeating mediocrity and his new super human levels of confidence and intelligence. Robert De Niro plays Eddie’s billionaire business mogul boss, a man who takes Eddie under his wing while remaining quite open about his intentions to profit from Eddie’s ability to divine the stock market. De Niro eats tough, self-determining roles like this for lunch and doesn’t disappoint here. It would have been nice to see more of his dark side though, since he never feels like much of a real threat to Cooper’s character.
Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, The Lucky Ones) peppers the film with some fun visual cues that illustrate Eddie’s mental state, separating his dull everyday perception from his pharmaceutically-heightened awareness. This ranges from subtle and slick techniques (warmer, sharper visual tones while on the drug) to bargain basement David Fincher/Michel Gondry tricks (an endless series of shots pushing through Manhattan’s streets to indicate lost time). Overall the movie hums along smartly, though a subplot with a thuggish loan shark Eddie borrows capital from threatens to overwhelm the entire narrative.
My only real problem with this movie is how far it goes to set up the consequences of Eddie’s drug use and easily-found powers, only to shy away from those harsh realities every time. For example, Eddie meets with an early user/victim of the NZT drug who describes the meteoric rise and subsequent crash she experienced. This promises to be an eye-opening window into how this drug destroyed a life, but soon peters out to an overlong scene where a pretty actress in a dowdy sweater talks about how the drug fried her brain without ever showing us anything really shocking. On the other hand, a climactic scene involves a surprising amount of blood and (judging by the young woman sitting next to me) a surprising amount of squirm-inducing violence. By constantly threatening to take us down some dark paths, but ultimately delivering only standard action movie brutality, Limitless slowly leaks tension until its interesting (if not necessarily satisfying) last minute twist. Still, it’s a fun ride throughout, and you could do a lot worse than watching Bradley Cooper play the smartest guy in the room for 2 hours. Just watch out for that comedown at the end…