What if there was a pill that could magically make you the best version of yourself? No mental blocks, no missteps, no faltering confidence. Everything you can be, unfiltered by everything that holds you back. Would you take it? Should you?
Limitless asks this question, but I’m not sure it has anything much to say on the matter. Still, it’s slick and stylish and elegantly sexy, and it provides plenty to focus on besides the plot.
Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a struggling writer in New York City. He lives — survives — in squalor, supported by the advance on his book contract and by his girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish). Unfortunately, Lindy has had about enough of him, and returns the key to his apartment. Adding insult to injury, later that afternoon Eddie runs into Vernon, his ex-brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth), who tosses him a sample of a new designer drug: NZT-48.
Somewhat unadvisedly, Eddie figures that his life can’t get any worse, and so why not pop this little silvery-clear pill? Almost instantly, the world snaps into sharper focus; the desaturated colors around him become supersaturated; his field of vision goes fish-eyed. He runs into his landlord’s wife and talks her not only out of her tirade over his late rent, but all the way back into her bedroom. Back in his own apartment, he is overtaken by an urge to clean all the things. He finishes enough of his completely unwritten novel to satisfy his agent.
Returning to Vernon’s apartment, he finds the place ransacked and Vernon dead. But whoever broke in didn’t find the stash of NZT Eddie manages to retrieve from beneath Vernon’s oven. With its help, he finishes his novel in four days, and branches out into other fields. He cleans up at the poker tables, picks up foreign languages with ease, and turns a few thousand dollars into a few million in a matter of days, drawing the attention of captain of industry Carl Von Loon (Robert DeNiro).
Unfortunately, he partly finances his ride with the help of a Russian gangster (Andrew Howard), who starts to get greedy. He’s also being followed by a mysterious man in a tan coat (Tomas Arana). And even more worryingly, he’s losing snatches of time. During one of these, he may or may not have killed someone, and so he tried to go cold turkey, only to be hit by withdrawal symptoms.
So Eddie must find some way to thread the needle; stay healthy himself, avoid withdrawal without running through his dwindling stash too quickly, and satisfy numerous powerful interests bearing down at him all at once. If there’s anything that can help with solving a problem like this, it’s NZT.
The Faustian story is far from new, but Limitless never quite portrays NZT as having any inherent downside that can’t be avoided with careful use. We’re told about a dozen other people who’d been using it, but are we to believe none of them ever came up with the moderation strategies Eddie hits on? As I understand it, the original story — Alan Glynn’s The Dark Fields, which is being republished as Limitless much as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was republished as Blade Runner — wasn’t quite as rosy in the end.
But maybe this is a cultural thing. Eddie’s behavior on NZT — particularly his first experience — resembles nothing so much as a manic swing in a bipolar patient. It seems clear that what NZT’s real action is as a kind of super-antidepressant. And who in America regards antidepressant medications as anything but a success, albeit one which should be handled with care? It’s admirable that Eddie expresses an interest in getting off the drug and making his way on his own, but there doesn’t really seem to be a downside to judicious, ongoing use in perpetuity.
Still, these philosophical qualms aside, it’s a very entertaining movie. Director Neil Burger shows a very creative visual sense, from easy tricks like the change in visual quality on and off NZT to fancy, mindbending ultrazooms. Are his flourishes always strictly necessary? No, but they’re great fun to watch. Paul Leonard-Morgan’s score works organically with the visuals to provide as many layers of focus for the audience’s ear as Burger’s direction does for the eye. If you enjoyed David Fincher working with the Dust Brothers on Fight Club, this is your movie.
But for all its sound and fury, in the end there isn’t much for Limitless to signify. It’s not a fantastic story; you don’t exactly have to be on NZT to follow what passes for twists; and there aren’t really any teeth to its conclusion. But as long as you enjoy the spectacle and stay on your meds, you’ll be fine.
Worth it: yes as a movie, no as a story.
Bechdel Test: fail.