Limitless begins with a familiar gimmick: our hero in dire straits, relating via voice-over how he got into this mess. Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is perched on a ledge high up a New York City skyscraper. Thugs are beating down the door of his penthouse; leaping might be preferable to what they’ve got planned. We should be worried about Eddie. If the movie fulfills its emotional duties, we should arrive back at this point late in the narrative feeling really upset over the prospect of losing Eddie.
But by the end, I couldn’t have cared less whether or not he went splat. Before you decide I’m heartless, walk with me through the plot of the slick and senseless Limitless, directed by Neil Burger (The Illusionist). Eddie is a grungy aspiring novelist who just can’t seem to get any words down on paper. His girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish, whose deepening lushness is beginning to recall a young Kathleen Turner), a book editor, gives him back his apartment keys; she is done with him. Then he runs into his ex-wife’s brother Vernon (Johnny Whitmorth), once upon a time his drug dealer. Vernon has gone upscale, but he’s still hawking a drug. It’s a small clear pill called NZT-48, and he promises Eddie it will make him smarter.
Eddie takes it, cleans his disgusting apartment and then makes a brilliant start on his novel. Enhanced Eddie is so great that he goes back for more NZT. He gets a firsthand look at how dangerous Vernon’s business is, yet he keeps popping the pills. The novel is done in four days, and then it’s onward and upward to language fluency, concert piano playing and driving cars really fast without hitting anything. Who needs to write more books when you have super reflexes and powers of deductive reasoning? Eddie tells us in voice-over that he was ready for something bigger: “Mere lounging wasn’t enough.” Oh, the places he’ll go!
With a prescription for NZT, I guess I might start with trying to cure cancer, helping to resolve the nuclear crisis in Japan or, if I were feeling greedy, besting Steve Jobs at making gizmos. But not Eddie. Instead he heads for Wall Street, where he does some show-offy day trading, fattens his bank account and gets into business bed with a mercurial sort named Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro) who needs help brokering the biggest corporate merger of all time. Such glory. Albert Einstein should have been so bold. What’s next? Smarter layoffs and better downsizing? As a bonus, Eddie reconciles with Lindy, who gratifyingly tells him that she’s both proud of him and “a little intimidated.” The whole thing is like a frat boy’s dream of 1990s success.
It is pointless to complain about a plot point simply because it isn’t in line with one’s own value system. (Maybe Alan Glynn, who wrote The Dark Fields, the 2001 novel Limitless is based on, and screenwriter Leslie Dixon were heavily influenced by Pretty Woman, in which the modern-day Prince Charming was a corporate raider.) But this one takes the witty joy out of Eddie’s exploration of his potential — the first part of the movie has the zippy energy and humor of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City — and sidetracks us into a corporate story line that feels dated and defies logic. We never, for instance, understand the hold Van Loon seems to exert on Eddie. Hungover from an epic NZT bender — blackouts and fast-forward motion are some of its side effects, as well as, you know, aging really fast and dying — Eddie tries to skip a meeting with Van Loon. There is no explanation for why this genius would be compelled to show up, yet he does. Why? In all likelihood, it is because every scene with Van Loon means more screen time for De Niro. More time for him to wince, grimace and grumble, like a guy parodying himself. He doesn’t add gravitas; he adds grimitas.
As for Cooper, possessed of wolfish good looks and piercing blue eyes, there is no denying he’s magnetic. But that magnetism works best in a crowd, as in The Hangover, where he was the hilariously sleazy glue holding a hapless group of guys together. A bright shiny penny of a man, he needs some dull pennies around him for contrast. Similarly, Limitless, — with its camera tricks (vomiting upside down as well as shots that suggest the camera is a freight train barreling down the sidewalk) and CGI stunts (three-dimensional letters falling like snow in Eddie’s apartment while he’s writing) — is more style than substance. It feels vapid even when it’s trying to persuade us of the nefarious significance of NZT, in large part because the screenplay is so indecisive about the drug. It’s addictive, or maybe it isn’t. It’ll age you and then kill you, or maybe not. You’re stupid without it, or maybe you aren’t. There are no happy endings on NZT. Or maybe there are. Is it too much to ask that a movie about a pill that makes you smarter swallow a little of its own medicine?