“What if you could be the best version of yourself?” is the question asked in Neil Burger’s new film, “Limitless.” But at that point would you really even be yourself? In the film floundering novelist Eddy Morra (Bradley Cooper) gains such abilities through a wonder drug ominously dubbed NZT that speeds up his intellect, allowing his IQ to increase exponentially. Hovering somewhere between a thriller and a sci-fi film, “Limitless” is overflowing with visual style, something lacking from Burger’s previous film, the tragically overrated, “The Illusionist.” The difference between the two films is so vast, I can only wonder if Burger laid his hands on some NZT when directing the former.
On our first introduction to Eddy he is a grungy mess, one step up from homeless, habituating a grimy hole in a New York Chinatown tenement. The first couple chapters of his novel are due in a couple days, but he hasn’t written a word. To add insult to injury his girlfriend, Lindy (Abby Cornish) has just kicked him to the curb. Running into his ex-wife’s brother, Vernon, (Johnny Whitworth) on the street changes all of that, when he offers Eddy a test run with this new “FDA approved” drug that promises to give you a better you.
As it turns out NZT is like Adderall on speed. After wooing the landlord’s angry wife with some witty and insightful comments about her paper at law school that seem way out of his league, Eddy realizes that his memory, deductive reasoning skills, drive, and ambition have all been kicked into high gear. He beds the woman, writes the pages for his novel, cleans his apartment, all in the span of a few hours. Burger goes all out with the effects, showing Eddy’s first experience with the drug as multiple version of the character walking around the apartment doing all of the work to some bumping techno beats. This is just the beginning of the music video type story-telling devices that the director employs to both tell the story, and gloss over some of the scripts flaws.
The next day his potential has been spent, Eddy crashes, and needs another fix. Finding Vernon at his home the dealer is much worse for wear. Undeterred by the bruises on the dealer’s face Eddy pushes for more NZT, despite the fact that the drug is obviously not FDA approved. Vernon sends Eddy out on some errands. Upon returning he finds the apartment ransacked and Vernon dead. Luckily Eddy does what the murder could not, he finds the stash. These drugs are in high demand, and with the limitless supply of neural enhancers Eddy can unlock his inner genius.
Rising star Bradley Cooper seems like an obvious choice for Eddy. At times he seems like more polished Matthew McConaughey, he never lets a suit wear him, but can come off a little too slick to be trusted. As Eddy’s life goes off the rails as a result of his addiction it is hard to find sympathy for the character as all of his unrepentant bad choices have added up to his situation.
Though Burger keeps the film going with all the tricks in his bag the script by Leslie Dixon drops the ball on a lot of the subplots. Later in the film it becomes pretty obvious who murdered Vernon, but it is never really settled. Another murder toward the midpoint of the film comes and goes in what seems like it was a much larger way in the book, “Dark Fields,” by Alan Glynn, upon which the film is based. Here it enters only to heighten the tension of the second act slightly, but is dropped unceremoniously when the plot is through with it.
Some of the more interesting aspects of the drugs affects are also glazed over. When Eddy ups his dosage of NZT he becomes intellectually unstoppable, but starts losing time, not knowing where he is or what is going on. A particularly fun fight scene, variations of which have shown up in “Sherlock Holmes” and “The Green Hornet” of late, is never gone back to or explained. All of his symptoms are fixed by simply going back to the prescribed dosage.
For all of these holes it is hard to tell if Burger is respecting the audience enough to fill in the gaps for themselves, or dropping the storytelling ball. The hints that he is aware of the cards he is holding back are the ways in which Eddy responds to the events. When asked by his lawyer if he did the things he is accused of Eddy’s only response is, “I don’t remember.”
The moral ambiguity that is derived from the drug comes from the invincibility, the omnipotent feeling NZT gives Eddy, and it is no surprise that he goes from being a schluby writer to being a maverick Wall Street trader to Big Business fat cat in no time. Things like murder become just the details of business for Eddy, a minor distraction to his big deal with Carl Van Looten (Robert DeNiro), the reigning tycoon in the world of global energy. Quickly Eddy becomes an allegory for the amorality of the “Masters of the Universe” that brought about the financial crisis of 2008. Working at that level millions of dollars become pawns on a chess board that spans the seven continents, and the rush that those who work in that arena can be like a drug.
However with all of the ups and downs of the drug the side effects are mitigated by working in moderation. If there is a message about drug use, particularly prescription drugs, Burger is saying that if you follow doctor’s orders a dependence on Prozac or Adderall or any other mood enhancing drugs on the market, can help make you a productive member of society. It is only when you get in deep with high powered energy executives or Russian loan sharks that things go awry.
El Luchador Rating:
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)