Limitless might have added up to something excellent instead of well-made fluff entertainment if Neil Burger cared to consider the ramifications of his film’s basic conceit and chose to punish his hero more, rather than reward him. Maybe that’s not being fair to Burger, because Limitless isn’t a bad film at all. It’s just not a particularly substantive one, not because Burger doesn’t fully answer the questions asked in the movie’s subtext but because he really doesn’t ask all that many in the first place. Disinterest isn’t a crime, though, especially when the result remains enthralling even in the absence of a greater sense of purpose.
Indeed, Limitless feels a bit like wish fulfillment for people obsessed with quick fixes and dreams of iron-clad financial stability in an economically unstable time. Stuck in a life rut? Need to improve yourself but lack the time? Desperate for fast, exorbitant income? Have a magic pill and all of your problems will be solved. Television is littered with advertisements pitching fast and easy ways to overcome any number of problems, from leaky roofs to weight and body image; Limitless‘ pharmaceutical MacGuffin feels like a close cousin to those too-good-to-be-true schemes, and so the film for a time balances between taking the mickey out of the suckers who fall for them and also celebrating taking the easy, lazy path of least resistance.
Burger, of course, replaces his protagonist’s old woes for new ones, balancing out that moral equation with consequences. Hapless schlub Eddie Morra starts the film off as a disheveled slacker, but after ingesting an experimental drug convincingly labeled NZT, he experiences a boost in intellectual, creative, and analytical powers which he first uses for simple tasks (cleaning up his atrocious apartment, bedding his landlord’s unreasonably hot wife) and eventually wields to gain rapid astronomical capital on Wall Street. Seems logical enough; what else would you do with a four digit IQ and near-psychic levels of intuition, not to mention Bradley Cooper’s good looks and charisma? (Full disclosure: He also gets back together with his girlfriend, played by the lovely Abbie Cornish. Fair enough.)
Not everything is peaches and cream for Eddie, though; the drug, unsurprisingly, has nasty side affects if used irresponsibly or irregularly. Making matters worse, shady people seem to be following Eddie wherever he goes, as it turns out that a drug of NZT’s caliber is something of a hot ticket. Imagine that. While Limitless begins by having fun with Eddie’s newfound mental acumen and physical image as he enjoys the benefits of having NZT in his bloodstream, it segues into an unexpectedly tight and surprisingly violent thriller at the halfway mark. Frankly, that’s satisfying in its own right; so what if Limitless doesn’t have much to say about its own ideas and themes? It’s exciting, fun, and crafted with a skilled hand. Sometimes, that’s the exact cinematic tonic we need.
Especially when it’s filtered through an ingenious, creative lens. Burger visually articulates Eddie’s perspective to us through a number of tricks and techniques; numbers and letters rain down from the ceiling as inspiration flows through Eddie’s brain, quick sequential cuts size up the people he meets in the blink of an eye, and the streets of New York link into one another as our hero travels from downtown to Times Square and everywhere in between. Limitless could easily have settled for merely depicting Eddie’s burgeoning personality and mental enhancements in varying situations with disparate degrees of urgency, but by immersing us in how Eddie sees the world Burger adds flair to the film even if that shared perspective often feels gimmicky. (Though in fairness, there are just as many times where the privilege of viewing life as Eddie is essential to the narrative.)
For as much Limitless is about Burger’s vision, though, it’s Cooper’s film in the end. Cooper feels like a bona fide star here, running the gamut from rock-bottom social parasite to high-style financial market jockey; he’s alternately pathetic and effortlessly cool. There’s a conflict in trying to sell a guy like Cooper as a guy like Eddie Morra (pre-NZT, that is), of course; no matter how much the film makes Eddie look like a sad-sack loser, he just ends up looking like a sad-sack loser with a striking resemblance to Bradley Cooper. Fortunately, Cooper himself is more than up to the task of selling the transformation, and appearances aside you might actually come to deplore him pre-miracle drug. It’s a great role for Cooper, and he really makes the most of it in every scene, enjoying his solo screen time as well as each moment he shares with his supporting cast (particularly Robert De Niro, here playing a financial titan with a casually disinterested facade which belies a ferocious sense of competition).
The ultimate flaw at the heart of the film lies in the circumstantial. Limitless, boiled down to its skeleton, is about a man whose life choices have led him to a place where he’s teetering on the edge of having nothing and who finds absolution from his own screw-ups in the form of a pill. In the end, rather than admonish Eddie for his complacency, the film rewards him for being in the right place at the right time; it’s also hard to say whether or not Eddie’s a different man by the end of the film, as he’s experiences change but arguably only through artificial means. All told, Limitless discourages human fixation with instant gratification on one hand while extolling its virtues with the other; thematically, it’s jumbled and confused.
Dramatically, though, it’s lean and strong-focused. Therein lies the film’s central question– is it proper to turn away a movie that’s engineered with skill and care because the ideas at its heart are treated loosely? No matter what your reaction may be to Limitless‘ lackadaisical examinations of theme, there’s little question that it’s an effective, energetic entry in 2011, maybe something we’ll only remember for Cooper and little else but all things told a solid little flick well worth checking out.