A stylish pharmaceutical thriller, Limitless offers plenty of points to ponder and debate, but is ultimately limited by a plot that throws too many underdeveloped ingredients into the chemical mix.
Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a struggling writer living in New York, close to being down-and-out and incapable of creatively penetrating his computer’s blank screen. Dumped by his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish), Eddie has a chance encounter with his shady former brother-in-law Vernon, who offers him a mystery pill that enhances mental abilities. Eddie takes the pill, and is immediately turbo-charged: his intellect is sharpened beyond comprehension, his energy is limitless, and he develops remarkable powers of connecting information and drawing conclusions that effectively predict the future.
Vernon is soon murdered and Eddie fortuitously gains possession of a large supply of the pills, now labelled NZT. Not surprisingly, shady characters start to stalk him. Fuelled by the chems, Eddie starts and finishes his book in days; regains the attention of Lindy; borrows money from a ruthless loan shark; makes a fortune on the stock market; and gets noticed by energy tycoon Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro). NZT proves to have addictive, dangerous, and potentially lethal side-effects, and Eddie’s life effectively spirals out of control. As Van Loon seeks Eddie’s exceptional analytical skills to close a major merger, it becomes obvious that a tornado of NZT-induced mayhem is about to touch down on Eddie’s life.
A metaphor for modern society’s obsession with instant gratification, Limitless is a lesson in the hazards of life’s short cuts. The Leslie Dixon script would have packed a greater punch with a more honest conclusion to the perils of skipping achievement on the road to the illusion of success, but nevertheless the pitfalls of taking the least safe road to the end of the rainbow are starkly portrayed.
Another more interesting theme explored by the film is the true potential of the human intellect. Ethics of the drug aside, Limitless explores how much more could be achieved if the remarkable properties of memory, analysis and deduction are harnessed and hitched to boundless energy. The film offers answers confined to greed and self-advancement, but shies away from more adventurous possibilities.
Director Neil Burger unleashes the style in limitless quantity. The film is peppered with plenty of impressive camera shots zooming endlessly forward, and multiple Eddies frequently appear on the screen in the same shot, busy in different corners of the same room. The visual gimmicks suit the subject matter, and enhance the intensely hyper-active, sharply defined multi-tasking effects of the mythical NZT drug.
Burger cannot prevent Limitless from stumbling awkwardly in its final third, as a corrupt lawyer and a tycoon rival to Van Loon are suddenly introduced and merged with the loan shark and his goons to create an unwieldy triple-threat against Eddie, while a hotel room encounter that left Eddie’s brief sex partner dead is all but forgotten in the rush to an ending strewn with dead bodies.
Bradley Cooper takes a break from his hangovers to portray Eddie as a man welcoming the competitive advantage that life suddenly hands him. Cooper is convincing as man with a failed marriage and a career rapidly heading in the same direction, grabbing the opportunity to suddenly exceed all expectations thanks to a small transparent pill. The supporting cast leaves little impression, and even Robert De Niro is dangerously close to predictable. Anna Friel and Abbie Cornish as Eddie’s ladies, past and present, are given limited screen time to make any meaningful contribution.
Limitless enjoys moments of rousing intensity, but ultimately the high wears off and the experience is limited by the intrusion of more conventional thriller elements.