On the one hand, I hate the premise of Limitless. It utilizes that old wives’ tale about how humans only use a small percentage of our brain capacity, which has long been a pet peeve of mine. Debates about the relative intelligence of the human race aside, the fact of the matter is that we are using 100 percent of our brain cells 100 percent of the time. The brain is what keeps the lungs breathing, the heart pumping and the digestive system moving. Moreover, it doesn’t exactly take a Ph.D in neuroscience to realize that if so much of our grey matter is redundant, head wounds would be much less fatal than they usually are. This is such a patently ridiculous concept that I’m amazed people still believe it.
On the other hand, I love the premise of Limitless. It’s a fascinating “what-if” scenario revolving around a universal wish: A wonder-drug that would grant instant intelligence and inspiration. Such a drug would definitely be very addictive, not to mention expensive and highly coveted, but there would surely be many who would do anything to keep the supply going in spite of whatever risks or side effects would present themselves. Thus, we have a standard “drug addiction” story, except it’s about a drug that does far more than boost confidence or show hallucinations.
Bradley Cooper stars (and exec produces) in this film, playing Eddie Morra. He begins the film as a struggling writer, nine years divorced from a quickie marriage and freshly dumped by his girlfriend. Eddie’s got an overdue rent for his dump of an apartment, he’s got a book deal past its deadline and he’s got no idea of what to do with either one. While searching for his muse at the bottom of a shot glass, he runs into his ex-brother-in-law, name of Vernon, who’s got a very shady past. As a cure for Eddie’s creative problems, Vernon hands over a sample of a new drug called “NZT.”
Eddie takes the pill, and the entire film suddenly goes from a drab bluish color to a bright golden hue. He’s energetic, he’s productive and he’s remembering little bits of trivia that were forgotten years ago. It all lasts until the next morning, when the effects have worn off. Shortly after, Eddie learns that the little clear pill isn’t exactly FDA-approved and the side effects are hitherto unknown. Through means that I don’t dare spoil here, Eddie obtains several hundred dollars in cash and a giant bag full of NZT. Using both, Eddie goes on to success and fortune.
Now, I’m a fan of Bradley Cooper. I know he’s been in his share of duds (*coughAllAboutStevecough*), but The Hangover and The A-Team were enough to prove this guy’s mettle. He can do comedy, he can do action, he’s charming and he’s a deceptively talented actor. And Cooper completely empties his bag of tricks in this film. Eddie is in nearly every shot of this movie and Cooper perfectly carries each moment. This is especially impressive upon consideration of all the emotional highs and lows that the main character in a drug addiction story must inevitably go through. Phenomenal work.
Kudos are also due to director Neil Burger and his crew. CGI effects and lighting changes are used to portray Eddie’s enhanced intelligence in ways that are breathtaking to watch. When the effects of withdrawal are first felt, Burger shows us the results through Eddie’s eyes to trippy and staggering effect. Even the opening credits sequence is filmed in a truly mesmerizing and awe-inspiring way. It’s brilliant stuff.
Then there’s the screenplay by Leslie Dixon. The script uses voice-over to express the character’s thoughts in ways that would make Charlie Kaufman proud. Yes, the plot is predictable enough: Eddie gets in with some bad people, he climbs his to the very top, he runs out of pills at the worst possible moment and he has to struggle against withdrawal while his past comes back to bite him. It’s standard stuff, but the dialogue is so witty and sharp and fast and funny that even the most straightforward scene becomes enjoyable to watch.
Half an hour into this film, I was already set to give it a full recommendation. I’d already witnessed a crackerjack script and awe-inspiring visuals, centered around a solid performance by Cooper. It was like watching Fight Club tinged with just a hint of Requiem for a Dream, which I mean as high praise indeed.
But then the second half came. And the luster gradually wore off.
It took me a while, but I slowly realized that the crazy visual tricks had almost completely disappeared after the first hour. The voice-over was still there, though the wit and humor in the script was gone. Then came the climax, when the movie had quite visibly run out of gas. The action in the climax was littered with poor creative choices, filled with improbable turns that completely broke suspension of disbelief. This came before the denouement, which just felt off to me. The tone and the message didn’t seem to square with the rest of the movie and it used plot points that were almost “deus ex machina” in their convenience.
But the big problems came with the development of film’s supporting cast. Take Abbie “Sweet Pea” Cornish as Lindy the love interest, for example. Cornish makes absolutely no impression with this character, but that’s mostly because she’s given nothing to work with. Lindy just sorta drifts in and out of the movie, seldom hanging around long enough to do anything of importance. She does get a nice bit of action at the halfway point that presents all sorts of possibilities for her character and for Lindy’s relationship with Eddie, but she’s gone from the movie immediately after, returning at the denouement just in time to do fuck-all.
Robert De Niro has a prominent supporting role as Eddie’s financial mentor, Carl Van Loon. And his performance here leads me to ask “Bobby, what are you doing?” This character might have potentially been interesting, but De Niro totally phones it in here. Even during Van Loon’s speech about how Eddie doesn’t know what it’s like to have clawed and backstabbed his way to the top, De Niro isn’t putting an iota of passion behind it. Imagine Gordon Gekko without any of the manic energy or quick temper that made the character iconic. De Niro could have delivered something much better than that, but he’s clearly either past his prime or past the point of caring. What a shame.
Some character actor named Andrew Howard has it even worse as a loan shark named Gennady. This character needed someone who could be scary, intelligent and intimidating. A genuine threat with or without NZT. Alas, Howard quickly proves to be way, way out of his depth with this character. He possesses none of the gravitas or the homicidal rage to make for a convincing and distinctive killer. He looks and acts less like a mob boss and more like a mob boss’ third-tier thug. A central antagonist completely undone by miscasting. Pitiful.
In the entire supporting cast, the only standout is Anna Friel as Eddie’s ex-wife. The makeup department made her ugly in this film, which ought to be punishable by law, but the role and her performance are such that I can let it slide. Her character brought a lot to the story and Friel played admirably off of Cooper. And then, after her one scene on camera, Friel wanders off the set and never returns. Gah.
Limitless is a frustrating movie for me. The first hour of this movie is phenomenal, but I just don’t know if it’s worth all the flaws in the back half. I expect that results will vary among audience members, though I’ll grant that the film stopped just before it got anywhere near insultingly bad. Waiting for a rental is probably the way to go with this one.