His apartment is a cramped rat-trap, his girlfriend just dumped him, his appearance is indistinguishable from your common vagrant, and he's pretty much whisked the employment out of self-employed - in short, Eddie Morra is a writer. More specifically, he's a blocked writer going nowhere, except maybe down the dark path of drugs and addiction. Indeed, when an illicit narcotic is offered, the dope is quick to take the dope.
But wait. This isn't any street-corner crack, the giver of false confidence, but something infinitely different, a cerebral steroid that puts biceps on your brain to let it operate at full capacity with results that are, well, "limitless." Yes, it's a therapeutic tablet with a tremendous work ethic and a high moral gloss - a pill that would get a puritan's seal of approval.
So when Eddie pops the thing and proceeds to finish his magnum opus in four days, to master the piano in three, and to grow fluent in Italian over a glass of Chianti, his high becomes ours. The premise here is intoxicatingly, contagiously thrilling. The whole idea of substance abuse morphing into a useful substance, of mind-altering giving way to brain-enhancing, is enough to awaken the dormant Timothy Leary in all of us.
It gets even more attractive when the effects are described: "I wasn't high, I wasn't wired - just clear. Everything I had ever learned or read or heard was organized and available." No more memory lapses, no more senior moments. Instead, a lifetime of intellectual experience can be instantly Googled, and your conscience is clear because this certainly isn't cheating. You've damn well put in the mental labour and have earned the right to retrieve its benefits. That's why the pill "works better if you're already smart" and why the conceit is so enticing to the audience. Hey, we're all smart, aren't we?
Writer Leslie Dixon certainly is. Her script (adapted from an Alan Glynn novel) doesn't just peak with the premise but ascends through the whole picture. It lets Eddie (Bradley Cooper) stumble upon a stash of the pills and then charts a sequence of entertaining, witty and yet still plausible consequences. Immediately, he does what every writer longs to do with his creative genius: win at love and make pots of money. Armed with his firing-on-all-cylinders brain, he not only gets his girlfriend back (Abbie Cornish) but, after borrowing $100,000 from a Russian mobster, coolly converts it to a whopping $4-million in the stock market.
At this point, the plot heats up on two fronts simultaneously. First, the mobster (a hilarious turn by Andrew Howard) gets turned on to the narcotic too, and finds his vocabulary improving almost as much as his ferocity. Second, Eddie's financial success attracts the attention of a Wall Street tycoon (Robert De Niro), who hires him to facilitate a vast corporate merger. From there, it's just a matter of introducing the complications. Alas, the drug has certain side effects, although nothing that can't be controlled with continued responsible use. Oops, now comes the real problem: Eddie's stash is running out, his supplier is kaput, and this stuff ain't exactly available over the counter.
With one exception - a murder-mystery tangent that peters out - director Neil Burger does a tidy job keeping the yarn's multiple elements up in the air and neatly juggled. Also, his technique for dramatizing the pill's effect is refreshingly underdone - no psychedelic gimmickry, just a brightened world and more intense acoustics. He even manages to ring a playful variation off the standard gunfight scene, complete with a sore-eyed thug literally shooting blind.
As for Cooper, he's asked to carry almost the entire film and shoulders the load beautifully. Really, his intoxicated work here is like The Hangover without the hangover - the same easy comic timing and an identical knack for making ethically dubious choices look amusingly attractive. But there's a bonus too. It comes during a short monologue when De Niro, apparently as inspired by the conceit as the rest of us, does something not seen from him in a long while - he digs deep into his buried talent and, for a few shining moments, acts superbly again.
Add it all up, including the nifty twist at the end, and what we have here is a fun Hollywood flick with a good head on its shoulders. The giddy conclusion is obvious: Limitless must have swallowed its own pill.
- Directed by Neil Burger
- Written by Leslie Dixon
- Starring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro
- Classification: 14A