Limitless is a thrilling, inventive joyride that should provide plenty of escapist fun this weekend, just in time to brush off the winter doldrums and welcome in the spring. The sci-fi drama is a showcase for Bradley Cooper, one of the stars of The Hangover, as well as supporting roles in a number of movies, and director Neal Burger, who had success with his magicians thriller, The Illusionist, but saw his excellent follow-up, The Lucky Ones, get squandered by its studio and sent directly to video. Neither of these men have proven to be able to open a movie wide, so this weekend will be a real test of how well Relativity, the company behind Limitless, markets the film. This is one movie that could benefit from word of mouth; hopefully, audiences will head to the theater to see it, as it’s a great way to spend 100 minutes.
As the film begins, we meet Eddie Mora (Cooper), a well groomed New Yorker standing perilously along the edge of his penthouse balcony. Outside the reinforced steel doors of his apartment, bad men are trying to break in. It’s a dire situation and Eddie isn’t going to let them get him. He tells us in voiceover that he’s going to determine how he leaves this world and leaping from the skyscraper where he lives is likely a better way to go than what the thugs in the hallway are going to do. As he stares down at human ants and the Matchbox cars driving around, Eddie inches toward oblivion. How did it get to this point? What went wrong for Eddie? In a frank, matter of fact manner, Eddie begins to tell us.
Flashback to a long haired, scruffier Eddie, slouched over and barely making ends meet. Eddie is a writer, living off a book advance and the goodwill of his gorgeous, understanding girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish). He’s yet to produce a single page of the novel he owes, spending more time socializing and talking about the book rather than actually writing it. His editor is frustrated and Lindy’s had enough. She breaks up with Eddie and does her best not to call him a loser. Time is running out and if Eddie doesn’t produce something soon, he’s liable to wind up homeless.
In a city of millions, Eddie has a chance encounter with his ex-brother-in-law, Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), a former drug dealer now peddling for a pharmaceutical company. Vernon is testing NZT, a new drug supposedly FDA approved that taps into the human brain and allows the user to access the full potential of their mind. When you take NZT, you see the world more clearly and you’re more focused. Like any good pusher, legal or otherwise, Vernon offers a free sample to Eddie.
Skeptical, Eddie returns to the dump he calls home. Dirty dishes piled in the sink. Clothes and trash scattered around the apartment. Out of desperation, Eddie swallows the clear tablet of NZT and his world changes. Suddenly he recalls nuggets of memory he’d long forgotten, little pieces of information that help him out of a jam with his landlord’s wife and into her bed. The world has changed for Eddie, he feels more confident and motivated and the first thing he does his write most of his overdue novel in a matter of hours. His writing isn’t some drug induced stream of consciousness blather; it’s a smart, bold statement that stuns his editor. Eddie quickly realizes that he needs more NZT.
Here, director Burger begins employing a series of visual elements that place us inside Eddie’s brain. As he works around the clock to clean his apartment and write his book, on screen we see five and six Eddie’s, simultaneously working. Letters literally rain down on him, as the words flow from his mind on to the computer. As Eddie attacks Wall Street and begins to make millions, insanely difficult equations play out as flipping tiles on the ceiling. Later, when Eddie begins to recognize the harmful side effects of NZT and he begins to lose portions of time, blacking out, Burger seamlessly moves Eddie from scene to scene in cuts that feel organic, but also have a jarring effect once we (and Eddie) realize that he’s not in the same place, or even the same time of day. Wisely, the director does not use the same effect twice. He has enough in his arsenal of tricks to throw something new at the viewer each time Eddie experiences something new. My favorite is the seemingly miles and miles film used to capture a single take that covers three city blocks.
As the film progresses, the slick Eddie we saw standing on the ledge emerges before out eyes. A bad deal he made with a Russian loan shark (Andrew Howard) haunts him throughout the story; a man in tan coat (Thomas Arana) seems to be stalking him with a concealed knife in his jacket; and the police suspect that Eddie had something to do with the murder of a beautiful socialite. Meanwhile, he tries to keep his addiction to NZT at bay while he works with Robert De Niro’s character, Carl Van Loon, a mega mogul, to broker the largest merger in corporate history. The difficult question that Limitless asks is “what are you willing to do for power and wealth?” Would you take a pill that gave you that, even if it meant coming apart at the seams if you didn’t have it? Like many of Phillip K. Dick’s great stories, this film uses science fiction to study addiction, morality and our roles in society.
Limitless is based on a novel by Alan Glynn and was adapted by veteran screenwriter, Leslie Dixon, who saw the movie potential of the little known book and optioned it on her own. The script sometimes slips into ‘B’ movie clichés, especially with some of the dialogue, but these are minor complaints for a film as entertaining as this one. The supporting cast is top notch. De Niro gives one of his strongest performances in recent memory, Cornish is excellent in the role of Lindy, Howard is menacing and funny as the Russian thug, and Anna Friel turns up, nearly unrecognizable, as Eddie’s ex-wife and a recovering NZT user.
Still, the movie’s success hinges on how much we associate with Eddie and stick with him, even as his morals begin to decay. It’s a credit to Cooper’s talent that we do stay on Eddie’s side as he takes us on his journey. This is star making performance, one that proves that Cooper can carry a film. Likewise, Burger shows that he is continuing to grow as a director, both visually and as a storyteller. Limitless isn’t going to change the world and revolutionize the cinematic world, but it does remind us that popular entertainment doesn’t have to be dumb to be enjoyable. There’s no reason we can’t use our brains a little while we wash down a handful of popcorn with a tasty soda.