Film Review – Limitless
I have to say, when I sat down to write this article, I had a little trouble figuring out how to begin. Thinking about it for a moment, I had to chuckle at the irony, seeing that this review is in regard to Limitless (2011), the newest film starring Bradley Cooper. In it, he plays a writer who starts off having writer’s block for his entire life—he can begin just about anything but finishes nothing. His life is made up of a series of false starts and rare accomplishments. That is, until he gets the ultimate gift: the ability to do anything that his heart desires, climbing his way up the social ladder with very little to no effort. Now, I think most of us can agree that the great things in life are seldom handed to us, and if they are, others want to know how they can make it easy too. That’s when things can get a little interesting.
Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a New York writer that you’ve seen in any movie that features a New York writer. He is unshaven, unkempt, unmotivated, lives in a run-down apartment, and has been working on a book for months with nothing to show for it. He has big ideas but doesn’t have the ability to fully express them. With very little funds and nothing to show from his writing, Eddie’s life becomes a bit of a disaster. Early on in the film, we find him divorced from his wife Melissa (Anna Friel), behind on his rent payments, and being kicked to the curb by his current girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish). He tries and tries to get started on his book, but can’t get past the first sentence without running into a mental block. Eddie lumbers around in near depression, in fear of having to go back to his parents for a job and a place to live. Needless to say, things aren’t going well.
That is, until he meets his ex-wife’s brother, Vernon (Johnny Whitworth). Vernon is everything Eddie isn’t: clean-cut, well dressed, exuding confidence and success. How exactly did Vernon turn out this way and not Eddie? This is due to a brand new street drug that Vernon introduces him to, called NZT. NZT works like a mental steroid, giving the user the ability to use their brain to its fullest capacity: perfect memory, the ability to recall minute details from long-past experiences, infinite energy and motivation to be productive and prolific—in short, to be the perfect version of themselves. Eddie, obviously, is skeptical about the repercussions of this drug, but if he followed his initial instincts, we wouldn’t have a movie. Almost immediately after taking NZT, the entire world seems to open up to him: he sees things more clearly, can speak confidently and intelligently, can work his way into (or out of) just about any situation through his own mental ability. The film doesn’t dive into the science of how this happens, or the debate about humans only using a fraction of their brains; it only asks the viewer to go along with its premise and enjoy the ride.
And what a ride Eddie takes once he starts using. He finishes his book (an engaging piece of work, of course) in four days, cleans his entire look within hours, talks his way up the social hierarchy, learns how to speak different languages without even trying, and in no time flat, is bumping elbows with the members of the upper class in far-off luxurious resorts. But he doesn’t just stop there. Addicted to this world and his rising success, Eddie sets his sights on an even bigger goal: Wall Street. Using his supreme intellect and mathematical prowess, Eddie becomes the toast of the investment town, doubling and even tripling his funds in a matter of days. This gets the attention of Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), an investment shark who tries to figure out just how a kid out of nowhere becomes an overnight success. The rest of the film’s plot involves Eddie becoming more and more addicted to NZT, his efforts to hide the effects of the drug from Van Loon and his colleagues, and the very real danger of those that learn of it, and their willingness to do anything to have piece of it themselves.
This film, to my shock, was a lot better than what I was expecting, and had strong elements going for it. The first is Neil Burger, who directed the movie. He provides a hyperkinetic style that would suggest that the film itself is on NZT. This is the director who made The Illusionist (2006) and The Lucky Ones (2008), and yet you wouldn’t guess that the same man made all three. Through quick editing and visual effects, Burger allows the film to delve into Eddie’s perspective. The opening scene includes a camera shot that whips through the streets of New York, on and on past everyone and everything around it, clearly showing how the effect of the drug can take a person from one place to another in what seems to be an instant. There is an extended scene, when Eddie goes on a high and loses himself, where the style of the film becomes fragmented, almost disjointed. Some may think of this as off-putting or over the top, and I can certainly see where they would make that assertion, but I found it appropriate, because if we step back and think about it, that’s exactly what Eddie would be feeling at that exact moment. Another strong aspect is the dialogue. The film was written by Leslie Dixon, and when Eddie starts to go off on his high, she provides sharp and precise wordplay. There are times where Eddie and Carl Van Loon trade blows in a verbal battle of business wit and expertise, and although the dialogue isn’t as good as, say, The Social Network (2010), it’s still impressive nonetheless. Both Cooper (who surprises us) and De Niro (who shows that he is still an actor worthy of note) handle the dialogue effortlessly, as if they were talking through a natural stream of consciousness.
The first half of the film is the strongest, as we see Eddie use his newfound ability to climb from rags to riches. I found myself intrigued with how Eddie was able to accomplish what he did simply by talking his way into it. However, the second half of the film does not hold together as well. The weakest parts of the film involve the gangster Gennady (Andrew Howard), who comes to realize Eddie’s secret and attempts to use his muscle to steal NZT from him. This leads to a number of chase scenes that wouldn’t even be considered for a B-level action film, as they are poorly shot and badly realized. During one of said chase scenes, a character uses ice skates in a way that is simply implausible. The worst scene of the entire film, unfortunately, is the climax. Eddie, in a moment of desperation, does something that’s supposed to seriously show how far he is willing to go to keep his mental abilities, but instead it comes off as pure silliness. The screening that I attended had the audience laughing at this scene, and I don’t think that’s what was intended. It’s unfortunate that the film had to delve into simple, action-thriller territory, because the first half suggests a movie that is better than that.
Limitless doesn’t get into the debate about the morality of performance-enhancing drugs; if you’re looking for a movie with a statement about steroids, this isn’t it. However, I was thoroughly entertained by it, which is a lot more than what I had expected walking in. The acting, while not extraordinary, is solid all around; the writing is defined and fitting for what it calls for; the style is relentless and appropriately paced. Yes, it does have its faults, but I think people will be satisfied with what they get here. And with a film like this, that’s all you really need.
Final Grade: B