Why do they have to keep doing this? Limitless starts out with an interesting sci-fi premise, then squanders it as merely a gimmick to lure us into a relatively typical story. Some might argue that that’s a rather harsh critique of this movie which actually has some style and carries the premise consistently through to the end of the movie, but I still think it could have been so much more. Eddie Morra (played by a between Hangovers Bradley Cooper) starts out the movie as a writer, suffering from a great wall of writer’s block. Luckily he runs into an acquaintance on the street who hooks him up with a little miracle drug which expands his brainpower (giving him access to the fabled 80% of the brain that humans don’t actually use), but only for a day. In that day, he not only cleans up his apartment and his life a bit, he bangs out four chapters of his book so brilliantly that his editor is fawning over him on voicemail. As the effects of his super-lucidity wear off, he returns to get some more of this wonder drug only to find his friend dead from a bullet through the brain. Eddie panics at first and then calls the police, but not before finding the stash of the drug left behind by his friend. With enough of the NZT (that’s the name of the pill) on hand to last him a long time, Eddie’s life begins a meteoric rise. His new confidence, style, knowledge, skill and intelligence gain him all kinds of new friends and opportunities. Pretty soon he comes up with a plan. He starts to get involved with day trading and he is unstoppable. Unfortunately, even as he is gaining the attention of a high-powered mogul (played effortlessly by Robert DeNiro), he is also bothered by unsavoury characters and mysterious stalkers. Also, he’s starting to experience a few time jumps and blackouts (not a good sign…). That just goes to show us all that even a brain on overdrive is not going to solve all our problems … or is it?
The movie starts out with a pretty cool effect of the camera zooming forward down the street. It’s a bit like Fight Club where graphic elements are added to scenes in a surreal way (e.g. letters cascade down as he types; ceiling tiles turn into a stock-price ticker board, or Eddie starts to see multiple versions of himself when he’s thinking really fast). Actually, he even does voiceovers that are a lot like Edward Norton’s from Fight Club. Nevertheless, this brain enhancement is still little more than a cinematic parlour trick. The story is about what happens to this character who gains success and power very quickly. From a story point of view, this really didn’t need to be achieved through a mental supercharge. It could just as easily have been a huge windfall of cash, a blackmail photo for the right victim, or some kind of insider information. There are only a few moments in this movie where Eddie’s super-intelligence really lives up to the concept. It’s definitely not when a low-life loan shark comes after him for the drug; nor when he becomes a Wall Street wiz kid; and not when he recalls kung-fu moves from old Bruce Lee movies, either. For the most part the movie doesn’t intelligently or creatively examine what could really happen if there was such a drug in the world. Eddie was a writer. Doesn’t he have a lot to say? Why does he give up on that just for money? Or would he really be so selfish not bother doing anything meaningful with his gifts? The theme of “the true price of getting rich quickly” is so overused in movies that it’s sad for this movie to go there. To top it all off, as Eddie has to deal with withdrawal from NZT, it started to seem like just another drug addiction film. Every time he would reach his fingertips out for a pill that fell on the floor or something, it just screamed “junkie character”, and I had to yawn a bit. That’s unfortunate because Cooper actually did a good job playing the amped up version of himself. He handled the rapid fire, smart dialogue well. DeNiro also wasn’t bad in a relatively simple role, but I especially enjoyed a scene where his character was explaining to Eddie how he may have a formula allowing seemingly limitless financial success, but he hadn’t “earned it” through experience the way he himself had. It felt a bit like DeNiro was teaching that same lesson to Cooper (who was also experiencing a bit of a career rise of his own at the time). I wish the writers of this movie had really put some thought into telling a story that was more unique and interesting, with more to say about intelligence and brainpower and what that means. Perhaps I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and speculate that their original script included some of that stuff in it, but Hollywood made them dumb it down. Wouldn’t that have been ironic? (3.5 out of 5)