Neil Burger’s Limitless is one of those films that ended up splitting me right down the middle when it was done. It makes for a good action-thriller with an intriguing premise, but there was also the desire for it to be something more than it was, especially when you realize that the premise presents unlimited possibilities. It presents very few of these possibilities and the dangers involved, but only goes so far with them.
It begins with a struggling writer, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), who has a book contract which he isn’t getting very far with. His girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish), dumps him because he is basically not going very far in his life. Eddie has a chance encounter with his ex-brother-in-law, Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), on the street and ends up having a drink with him. Vernon sees that Eddie is down-and-out with his writing and decides to help him out by giving him an experimental drug known as NZT.
Reluctantly, Eddie takes the drug and immediately realizes the effect that it has on him. It increases his ability to recall everything he has ever taken note of in his life, basically giving him “total recall.” This increased brainpower allows him to do several things he was never able to do before such as learn languages, the piano, and how to play the stock market, all in an incredibly short amount of time. It even allows him to finally write the book he had been stuck on for several weeks.
Eddie soon falls in with a group of businessmen headed by Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro) who wants him to help with their business after hearing how Eddie made millions in the stock market in a snap. However, Eddie begins to realize that the drug has other strange effects on him, including a period of time that he can’t account for. In order to make as big a dent in the stock market as he did, he had to take out a loan from a loan shark, who ends up discovering the mind-altering drug, making Eddie’s life more complicated when the loan shark wants more. Trying to balance this with his dealings with Carl, being mentioned as a possible murder suspect, his ex returning to him, and the drug’s effects is not exactly easy.
Limitless really does work best as an action-thriller in the sense that you can’t really tell what’s going to happen from moment to moment. However, despite bringing up the question of what one would do with seemingly unlimited brainpower, it doesn’t go very deep with it. What would you do with such a gift? I suppose it really depends upon the kind of person. Would they use it for financial gain? A grab at power? Or would they use it for a greater cause? Eddie seems to be a supporter of the former two.
Some of the most interesting scenes in the film are when Eddie uses his new-found powers. One of these comes mere moments after using the drug. When he’s returning to his apartment, he finds a woman there asking for the rent, but just from eyeing a corner of a book in her purse, he recalls having seen the book years ago and strikes up a conversation on the topic of a Supreme Court Justice. It just so happens that she’s writing a paper for law school (another fact he intuits). He helps her out with it, therefore defusing the situation about the rent. Scenes like this are what give us the closest glimpse into what it’s like for Eddie on this new drug. Later on, we merely get some kind of montages that show us how he perceives the world and how he becomes a pro with stocks.
Bradley Cooper makes for an interesting star, but he seems to only be playing the character on two plain notes. He starts off as a struggling writer who knows what he wants his book to be about as he attempts to explain its complexities to some men at a bar, but after he takes NZT, he becomes much cockier about what he knows. He fluctuates between a desperate man who needs this drug to be a genius and a cocky businessman who seems to know everything. Cooper does a fine job, but there’s just not much to the character.
We also get another phoned-in performance from the great Robert De Niro, who has sadly been getting stuck in these kinds of thankless roles in films like Little Fockers and Stone. It’s hard to say if it’s simply that no one wants to offer De Niro a good role anymore or if he’s just become a really bad judge of material. You would think that he would have plenty of roles to choose from, and I would hate to think that he’s lost his talent for choosing good parts to play.
In the end, the film needed to explore its potential a little more, which is ironic given the subject matter. Without fully exploring the ideas that it brings up, the film becomes rather fleeting, and while it does have some entertaining moments and other moments where possibilities rear their heads, it never quite lives up to the premise. If you’re in it simply for the thrills and action, you may find yourself entertained, but if you’re looking for something more than that, chances are Limitless won’t be satisfying enough. 2.5/4 stars.
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