If humans can only access 20 percent of their brains normally and 100 percent while on NZT, the “Limitless” drug of choice, then I would say screenwriter Leslie Dixon and director Neil Burger probably access somewhere around 70 percent of their creative power with regards to bringing Alan Glynn’s novel to the big screen. All far-fetched concept stories have their side effects, but the true winners avoid the crash. “Limitless” takes its audience on a thrill ride through the realm of possibility and gleefully entertains, but some sobering second-act elements kill off a bit of the joy.
Bradley Cooper ascends to full-fledged leading man status as Eddie Morra, a disheveled writer stuck in a rut who receives a little round miracle from an old acquaintance. This pill multiplies brain function exponentially, increasing his capacity for knowledge and the speed with which he acquires it. He can learn entire languages within hours, problem-solve instantaneously, recall long-discarded insignificant details from his memory and even finishes his book in the first night. But as we all learned in D.A.R.E., all drug use has its consequences.
Eddie’s consequent meteoric rise to wealth, prestige and even fame is a fun time. He even scores his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) back. Although the degree to which he outsmarts and impresses everyone is a total joke from a believability perspective, between Burger, Dixon and Cooper, we get a hard sell. The script paces well and uses narration effectively to help us enter Eddie’s head and Burger employs a great deal of visual techniques — even if excessive at times — to mimic the effects of the drug, not unlike Darren Aronofsky’s work on “Requiem for a Dream,” just less stomach-churning.
Burger and cinematographer Jo Willems change exposure levels, color brightness and countless other techniques to create a distinction between when Eddie is on versus off NZT so that we feel that transition with him to an extent. Cooper as an actor fully captures that for us as well. I suppose if there’s anything he learned to do well from “The Hangover,” it was act convincingly hung over or experiencing withdrawal.
Truthfully, Cooper’s the show here. Although they have scenes of influence, Cornish and Robert De Niro (as a business bigwig who employs Eddie to orchestrate a merger) have little bearing on the story. At one point it seem Cornish’s Lindy will emerge as a prominent character, but this surprisingly subsides.
Muddling matters more are the varying forces of antagonism in the film: a lender who gets hooked on the drug who keeps coming after Eddie, a man following him and of course the nasty side effects of the drug that Eddie soon uncovers. Things are not as intricately connected as we’re inclined to believe, which is mostly what derails the film in the end. The other factor would be a total lack of a realistic message, or any message for that matter.
Rather than make a statement, “Limitless” opens our minds a bit. For a science-fiction concept, there’s something relatable on a rather universal level. What if all of a sudden we could unlock our full potential? Would it still be “us?” The story imagines that world well and “Limitless” provokes these questions and more; it just doesn’t do much with them.
Serving as executive producer, Cooper shows a flare for the business here. He’s put the right pieces in place to make a fun concept movie work in addition to finding a leading role that fits his abilities. The film’s better-than-expected box-office business also suggests he’s growing quite popular. It’s almost the kind of prowess you’d have to manufacture … wait, could it be?
Directed by Neil Burger
Written by Leslie Dixon, Alan Glynn (novel)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, Robert De Niro