The film “Limitless” begins with struggling fiction writer Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) having a chance encounter with Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), his former brother-in-law and a onetime coke dealer who now claims to be a pharmaceutical consultant. Wanting to help Eddie with his writer’s block, Vernon gives him a sample unregulated drug called NZT, which allows its users to take advantage of 100 percent of their brain. Popping the pill, Eddie goes from average Joe to Good Will Hunting in thirty seconds, finishing his novel and then setting his sights on amassing a great fortune in the stock market, a meteoric rise that puts him on the radar of Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), a titan of the energy industry who wants to utilize Eddie’s genius thinking to aid in a very difficult merger with another industry giant. Along the way, Eddie must smooth things over with his on-again/off-again girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish), deal with Gennady (Andrew Howard) the Russian gangster who provided him with start-up capital for his fortune, and figure out he’s going to get his next fix of NZT when his supply starts running low.
[Readers’ note – There will be spoilers below.]
For such an intriguing premise, the final product is a series of disappointments. The biggest disappointment is its message (one I’m assuming to be entirely unintentional). It’s not hard to see NZT as Adderall to the eleventh power, simulating its dual purpose as a study aid and a party drug. Though other characters in the film who abuse the drug wind up dead, disabled, or burnt out and prematurely aged, Eddie waltzes through the film with little real consequence for his drug use. The film ends on a note that “responsible” abuse of an illegal and dangerous drug can lead to an overwhelmingly positive outcome. After the obstacles Eddie faces — such as an unnecessary withdrawal sequence, mysterious men following him, and the threat of physical violence by Gennady and his goons — he comes out on top. In his most desperate moment, Eddie drinks of the blood of someone who injected NZT (the person said shooting up gets the drug into the blood faster, which must be really fast since the film established NZT starts working in under a minute when taken orally, but that’s beside the point). This moment should be one of depravity and personal horror; Eddie shouldn’t shrug it off. Instead, we leave Eddie as he is barreling his way down a path to the White House.
To add to the crassness of it all, Eddie states that he stopped using the drug, but from prolonged use, he’s managed to retain a great deal of the super intelligence that originally would fade when the drug wore off. He’s opposed by Carl, who is not without his own faults, wanting to control Eddie for his own gain. But Carl maintains something Eddie will never possess — substance. Eddie is a self-made man, who fought and clawed his way into a position of power. In one of the film’s stronger moments, he explains this to Eddie, pointing out that the younger man hasn’t earned his newfound lot in life. But with this film being the antithesis of a cautionary tale, Carl is rendered irrelevant at the conclusion. The American dream of hard work yielding great rewards has been replaced by an American delusion of being handed everything. The audience is meant to cheer for Eddie for being lucky enough not to burn out like all the other NZT users and instead retain all the benefits.
You can argue that Eddie possesses a survival instinct and keenness that doesn’t come from the drug, and that’s why he’s able to parlay his drug use into success. But that doesn’t make him any more sympathetic. He only does things for his own gain, and as he embarks on a political career, you’re left with the certainty that he won’t change. He has the smarts to make the world a better place, though he probably never will.
Bradley Cooper plays Eddie well. Years ago, I felt he struck the perfect chord playing a cocky and often unlikeable but also endearing character in the short-lived “Kitchen Confidential” on FOX. Since then, he’s done a handful of variations on that routine, though often losing the endearing aspect. He doesn’t try to change it up here.
Robert De Niro actually turns in a surprisingly restrained performance. He isn’t breaking any ground, but at the same time he isn’t falling back on the whole “Robert De Niro doing Robert De Niro” act that’s characterized many of his roles over the past decade.
Abbie Cornish turns in a serviceable performance in a relatively thankless part. She’s the woman who is going to love the guy even though she readily admits he’s changed for the worse. If nothing else, this film afforded her the opportunity to wield a small child wearing ice skates as a weapon. Just in case you thought I mistyped something, let’s repeat: The film afforded her the opportunity to wield a small child wearing ice skates as a weapon.
The right kind of viewer will be thrilled to discover that the ex-brother-in-law Vernon is played by Johnny Whitworth, who is most famous for portraying the lovelorn A. J. in the generation-defining film “Empire Records.” He’s hardly aged in the sixteen years (!?!) since that film, and his hair is as fabulous as ever. In this supporting role, he seems to be doing his best to channel his inner Christian Slater.
Director Neil Burger (helmer of “The Illusionist”) brings some fantastic visuals to the picture. Some of which owe thanks to the style set forth in David Fincher’s films, but Burger infuses the look with freshness, utilizing high-speed zoom shots through the city streets that are dizzying in the best way possible. When someone speaks well of this film, it will be for this style.
Unfortunately Burger can only do so much to elevate the material that often falls back on familiar thriller tropes, a litany of head-scratching plot points, and a few missed opportunities. The screenplay written by Leslie Dixon (veteran writer of “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” and “Pay It Forward”), and based on the novel The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn, is set in a New York where The Post will want to write about an overnight success, but then seemingly has no interest when Eddie’s implicated in a murder. It’s also a New York where you can jump into a cab and shout, “Go!” and the cabbie will implicitly know where to drive.
I’d like to end this review on a positive note, and since I already mentioned Johnny Whitworth and his splendid hair, I’d now like to mention a scene that worked so wonderfully and spoke to what this film could have been. Throughout the film, a fellow NZT addict has been going to great lengths to steal Eddie’s stash. When Eddie finally discovers he’s fallen for an elaborate ruse, there’s a moment of realization — he’s actually been outsmarted. He almost can’t be angry, because he should have thought of it first and didn’t. The charm and smarts of that moment should have extended throughout the film.
Randall J Lotowycz is the author of the DC Comics Super Heroes and Villains Fandex. A graduate of the New School University’s Creative Writing MFA program, he’s currently at work on finishing his first novel (because the self-published books really don’t count). He lives in Brooklyn with two cats: Lil’ Misfit and Maybee Mae. Oh, and he’s the inventor of Darts!, the world’s first and only magnetic dartboard wall calendar. (Take that, inventors of the piano key tie and the pet rock!) He also happens to own five alternate versions of Michael Mann’s Manhunter on DVD, and likes and loves each of them.