In an age where the greatest baseball players of their era are being kept out of the Hall of Fame for taking performance-enhancing drugs as millions of uninsured Americans struggle to pay for medications they need to live, Neil Burger's Limitless certainly has topicality on its side.
The movie stars Bradley Cooper as Eddie Morra, a disheveled struggling writer scraping out a meager living in New York City while he procrastinates starting his novel, even though he's already spending the advance he's been given. After his girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish), dumps him for being so directionless, Eddie bumps into his ex-brother-in-law, Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), a shady drug dealer who gives Eddie a new pill. Turns out NZT, as it's called, fills Eddie with the capability to not only fulfill his potential, but it makes him smarter, more observant, and gives him encyclopedic recall of anything he's ever read or heard. He finishes his novel in one day, the publisher loves it, and now Eddie just needs more of the super-drug. That becomes problematic when Vernon is killed. Eddie finds the stash of NZT, and starts to turn his life around; however, he also begins to suffer seriously adverse side effects. On top of that, there's a ruthless Russian gangster on the hunt for the same drug.
Limitless is absolutely fun to watch. It's got a pulpy energy -- you have little idea what's going to happen next -- and it's delivered with maximum gloss; commercials rarely look this slick. There's an undeniable kick watching Eddie rapidly master new skills, whether it's learning a foreign language, making a killing in the stock market, or seducing his landlord's girlfriend. Cooper is a smart choice to lead this project -- he's adept at projecting both cunning intelligence and lethal charm. He holds his own with Robert De Niro, who plays a billionaire businessman who considers hiring Eddie after the young man becomes a superstar in the financial world.
While the surface levels of Limitless are highly enjoyable, there's something deeply cynical about the story being told, and it doesn't feel like the director recognizes the misanthropic darkness at Eddie's core. He's seduced by the drug's power, and there's early lip service paid to how NZT makes you capable of doing evil or unethical things you wouldn't otherwise do, but by the movie's conclusion there doesn't seem to be any grey area as far as how the audience is supposed to feel about him. There's a disconnect between the director and the script; the screenplay tries to keep these serious elements of the story in our consciousness -- especially in the character of Lindy -- yet the movie revels so much in our hero's successes that most people will leave the theater thinking he's a role model rather than a cautionary tale. Limitless is certainly a good time, but with a little more ambivalence it would have been a first-rate thriller.