Release Date: March 18, 2011
Director: Neil Burger
Writers: Leslie Dixon (screenplay), Alan Glynn (novel)
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and Abbie Cornish
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Watching Limitless, you feel a bit like you are on NZT, the wonder drug Bradley Cooper‘s character Eddie Morra takes in order to unlock his brain’s full potential. Like any drug high, the film bursts out of the gate with a frenetic pace and boundless potential, but eventually loses steam and begins to crash as it comes to a close.
Limitless follows the template of most “rags to riches” stories. At the beginning, we see Eddie at rock bottom. Sporting a greasy ponytail and scruffy beard, Eddie is behind on the deadline for the book he is writing and has just been dumped by his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish). His former brother-in-law bumps into him on the street and offers him a free sample of a new, not-yet-on-the-market pharmaceutical drug called NZT that unlocks the parts of the brain humans don’t use, in essence making you a superhuman version of yourself.
On the drug, Eddie is quickly able to turn his life around. He cuts his hair, cleans his apartment and finishes his book in a matter of days. Then he moves on to the stock market, making record profits in a few weeks simply by noticing fluctuations and patterns that others can’t see. He gains notoriety, which lands him on the radar of Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), the CEO of a huge energy conglomerate.
However, there are side effects and consequences to using the drug. Taking too much NZT causes you to black out and lose time. Quitting it cold turkey causes your body to shut down, eventually resulting in death. Also, to obtain the drug and to get his start up capital, Eddie has to interact with a few seedy characters who continue to resurface as his stock rises.
It’s a promising set up and director Neil Burger does a good job moving the story along. The movie is highly stylized with a lot of little interesting visual flourishes, which for the most part work. When Eddie takes the pill, you see the inside of his esophagus as it slides down his throat. You see words pouring down around him as he types away on his computer. As he cleans his apartment, you see multiple Eddies on-screen working together to get it done in record time. Most of these visual effects are charming and fun, though at times they can be a bit distracting or disorienting, like when Burger turns the camera upside down as Eddie pukes or when he keeps moving the camera forward too quickly in order to show how fast Eddie is moving.
One of the best things Burger does is the way he differentiates between the normal world and how Eddie sees the world when he’s on NZT. Normally, New York City looks gray and washed out, but whenever Eddie pops a pill, suddenly the world around him looks oversaturated, full of color and light. It’s a smart way to show the shift in his brain and it works quite well in the film.
There are also a few moments early on where we see how Eddie is able to suddenly seem so much smarter than he was before without having actually learned anything new. On the drug, he is suddenly able to access seemingly insignificant memories that contain bits of information he never thought was important before. He notices the corner of a book in a woman’s bag and then we flashback to when he was in college and noticed the same book in a date’s apartment, allowing him now to identify the title after only seeing the corner. Then there is an entertaining fight scene where Eddie is able to fend off several attackers at once and we see various TV programs he has seen over the years that he’s now using to win the fight (Bruce Lee movies, fighting documentaries, etc). It’s a really clever concept which I wish they played with more, but unfortunately the film just drops this idea as the story progresses.
That’s actually my biggest problem with the film – the sloppiness of the writing. From the start, the film asks for a heavy amount of suspension of disbelief, which is fine, but there are numerous plot holes and a general choppiness to the story that keep this movie from being as good as it could be. I have a feeling that there may be several deleted scenes cut for time that fill in a few of the gaps, but as it stands, the film feels a bit disjointed and sloppy.
Also, it relies too heavily on narration to advance the plot. A lot of important information is given to the viewer via voiceovers by Bradley Cooper. It’s a lazy way to move the story along and it ends up being much less impactful than if Burger and Co. had actually shown the audience what they wanted to convey instead of just telling them.
The ending of the film also ended up feeling like a bit of a cop out, which is disappointing considering how much potential the story has.
Thankfully, the performances in the film are good enough to help overcome these shortcomings in the writing. Bradley Cooper is good in the lead and Robert De Niro, who has sadly become hit-or-miss in his performances at this stage in his career, is fairly good, if not great, as Van Loon. Also, Tomas Arana manages to put in a menacing performance with limited screen time as the ominous-sounding “Man in Tan Coat.”
It’s not quite great, but Limitless is an entertaining film with enough energy and creative flourishes to keep you entertained.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.