A schlubby writer becomes a high-achieving financial wiz thanks to a potentially dangerous drug in Limitless, a movie that is stronger in the premise than in the payoff.
Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a messy, long-haired loaf who is trying and failing to make headway on the book he’s writing. His girlfiend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) finally decides all this sad-sack-ery is too much and leaves him. Even more down in the dumps, Eddie shlumps around New York and runs into Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), his former brother-in-law (marriage being yet another thing Eddie has failed at). Vernon was once a standard street-drug dealer but has moved on to selling a translucent pill that looks a bit like a shirt button but promises extraordinary things. He gives one to Eddie, who is reluctant at first but decides, what with his total patheticness, why not?
The drug works quickly and with astonishing power. Suddenly Eddie can remember odd facts and bits of information he read years earlier. In the course of hours, he’s able to successfully hit on a girl, clean up his apartment and start work on his book. The burst of mental clarity and ability to complete tasks is as addictive as any high and soon he’s heading back to Vernon for more. Their meeting doesn’t go quite as planned, but in the end Eddie has a massive supply of NZT, this miracle drug that brings out the best, most high-achieving you and lets it run free.
Soon, Eddie is finishing his book, getting a haircut and better wardrobe, schmoozing his way into friendships with rich people and learning enough about the stock market to make some fast money day-trading. Of course, if you start with $100, even doubling your money in one day doesn’t get you very far very fast. So Eddie makes the decision to get a line of credit — a line of credit with a violent Eastern European mobster. Gennady (Andrew Howard) is only happy to hand over money with the understanding that he will break and stab many things on Eddie if Eddie isn’t prompt with paying him back. Equally dangerous is the friendship Eddie strikes up with Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), a sort of terrifying Warren Buffet who picks the rapidly evolving brain of Eddie for merger advice.
Of course all this gain is likely to have some pain. As Eddie uses more and more of the medicine, he starts to feel painful side effects, particularly if he can’t get his daily dose in time — troubling because even his large stash can’t last forever. And, as he starts to see a man following him through the city, he realizes he’s not the only person who knows about the wonder-powers of the drug.
You know the lottery daydream? The one that starts “If I won the lottery, I’d…”? The first bit is probably about telling the boss-man what to do with your job and maybe something about pushing your problem-prone car into a ditch. Then you get to the vacation home and the Paris shopping spree. But then you start to think about things like the new house (here? somewhere else? would we pull the kids out of school?) and keeping the money-sponging relatives at bay (maybe I’d have a trust collect the money, so I can remain private — can you do that in New Hampshire?). And eventually the simple “winning the lottery” fantasy involves designing a plane that can commute from New England to Hawaii in an hour and building a house with a moat and turning back time so you’re 24 and cute when it all happens.
Limitless feels sort of like an elaborate lottery fantasy. The premise — a drug that can make you your most high-functioning self — starts strong. The “what would you do” fantasy is amusingly developed, thanks in part to the comfortable smirkiness of Bradley Cooper. He doesn’t seem like someone who harbors great depths, as an actor, but he can look winning in a suit and toss off a few good lines just fine. But as the movie goes along, the story starts to become more fantastical, leading up to an ending that is the ultimate “we’d live in a space station and have two martial-arts-expert butlers on call at all times” scenario. It’s a lot of suspension of disbelief, more than a movie this medium-effort can really get away with.
My feeling about the movie overall is similar to my feelings about the narration. At first, I was willing to go with it and enjoy the pleasant smarminess of Cooper’s voice. But about two-thirds in, it all starts to feel a little too much. The movie gets in its own way of being the pleasant, fun thought experiment it could have been — particularly when it comes to the craggy, frowning De Niro and the shapelessness of his role. Limitless would have been better if someone had tried to reign it in.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving a drug, violence including disturbing images, sexuality and language. Directed by Neil Burger and written by Leslie Dixon (from a novel by Alan Glynn), Limitless is an hour and 45 minutes long and distributed by Relativity Media.