Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) was just another New York slob dodging his landlord and trying to write a science fiction novel about “the plight of the individual in the 21st century” until he ran into his shifty ex-brother-in-law and got hooked on NZT 48, an experimental underground drug that grants imbibers access to those proverbial underused regions of the brain. Suddenly everything Eddie’s ever read, heard, or seen becomes organized and available. He finishes his book in four days, wins back his girl (Bright Star’s Abbie Cornish), learns multiple languages, and masters the stock exchange. The side effects? Paranoia, some vertiginous crashing, and a nasty addiction. He also has ever-burgeoning gaps of missing time. During one such gap he may have even killed someone—but Eddie’s got other things to worry about. Like getting rich, impressing Robert De Niro’s mega-mogul, and surviving business ties with the Russian mafia.
Pay It Forward producer/screenwriter Leslie Dixon based Limitless on Alan Glynn’s The Dark Fields. Glynn’s novel came out in 2001, but the premise feels more resonant in 2011 and its everything/everywhere/all-the-time access to data via portable technology (which some depressingly predict will eventually be wired into our bodies). Its deeply fertile premise is finally what carries Limitless, which is never less than engaging. Dixon’s script is fun and structurally inventive (including a pleasingly abrupt little bitch-slap of an ending) yet curiously generic (it’s so focused on being a solid, twisty thriller that it seems to forget that it could potentially be so much more). Meanwhile, Neil Burger’s direction mirrors that of his effects-fussy, thematically kindred 2006 breakthrough The Illusionist. His teaser/opening credits sequence feels like a trailer and seems especially inspired by Google Earth. His camera likes to zip through windshields and hair salons. There’s too much music cluttering the soundtrack and far too many cutesy, overly illustrative visual enhancements, such as the fridge magnet letters showering down on Eddie while he plunges headlong into writing. This tale of fantastical drug abuse could have benefited from a sober approach. Or David Fincher. Or, come to think of it, David Cronenberg, and his cool insights into the latent beast within.
As you consider all that Eddie might accomplish under NZT you start to realize not only how frustratingly limited Limitless’ imaginative circuitry is but also how much of a selfish prick Eddie is. Which is a perfectly legitimate way to go: film noir is full of guys like this, compellingly repulsive antiheroes hard-wired to look out exclusively for number one. The problem is that Eddie’s not written or realized in a way that seems cognizant of his character flaws (the movie wants to like him too much), and thus fails to exploit these flaws for good, gritty drama. Cooper’s fine in the role, but brings nothing extra, nothing that imbues Eddie with that special quality that makes you both envious and appalled, wondering how you might get your hands on some of what he’s got. Perhaps we’ll be seeing more stories like this one in the coming years, stories driven by our apparent urge to merge the mind with someone’s ideal computer gadget. Perhaps these other stories will go farther. In the meantime, Limitless is worth checking in with, if only to ponder the outer limits (of which this would have made a pretty good episode).