Whenever our country faces hard times of economical depression, movies about rags-to-riches stories tend to thrive in their popularity. We can always obtain a great fulfillment fantasy from watching ordinary Joes having fame and fortune dropped into their laps. And even if they are threatened to lose it all, important humanist values come shining through in the end, helping us to realize that theres more to life than fame and fortune. Limitless more or less follows this mold, except for the typical moralistic ending. Instead of renouncing fame and fortune, here’s a film that curiously defends it. The hero of this story resorts to preposterously shrewd methods to avoid the repercussions of his actions, commenting deliciously on the relentless ambitions of our culture today.
Bradley Cooper stars as Eddie Morra, a down-on-his-luck struggling writer. With the appearance of a shaggy vagabond, Eddie can’t seem to overcome his writer’s block, financial woes, and the fact that his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) just dumped him due to his laziness. Things, however, take a whopping turnaround the day Eddie bumps into his ex-brother-in-law, Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), on the streets of New York. Vernon is a former drug-dealer turned big business consultant who tells Eddie that he has a magic pill that can cure all his ills. If humans can only access 20% of their brains, then this pill can help you access all of it, bringing you to extreme heights of awareness and intelligence thats almost superhuman. Figuring things can’t get any worse, Eddie decides to take the pill.
Almost instantly after ingesting it, Eddie’s brain lights up like a pinball machine and he transforms into a super genius. He finishes his book in record time, he learns to play instruments and speak foreign languages in a matter of days, and he uses new-found mathematical skills to rack up millions in the stock market. Of course these millions help turn Eddie from a broke sap into a suave, dapperly-dressed, good-life-living smoothie, the kind that even wins back Lindy.
Yet going from zero-to-hero overnight is bound to bring an awful lot of attention with it, something Eddie hopelessly draws on himself with dangerous consequences. A financial big shot (Robert DeNiro) grows anxious to find out Eddie’s secrets-to-success, a scary loan shark (Andrew Howard) discovers Eddie’s secret drug and demands more, and Vernon isn’t able to reveal the source of the pill, making Eddie’s supply limited. Not only will Eddie lose all of his intelligence and insights when the drug runs out, but he learns that deadly things can happen to people who’ve abused this pill before.
Limitless is not only a dizzying entertainment but also comments on the way we live now in very peculiar ways. Through Eddie, we can identify with an American need to seek fame and fortune instantly without putting in any of the apparent hard work. Most of us would probably swallow that pill, consequences be damned, faster than Eddie would. Even as it becomes blatantly clear that Eddie’s success and drug-use can cause deadly repercussions for himself and others, his chief concern appears to be the loss of his fortune and entitlement. The obsessive lengths Eddie goes to to protect his lavish lifestyle eerily reflects the relentless American need to protect our egos and assets by any means necessary. Out of the desperation of poverty comes a Machiavellian need to achieve the ultimate success and keep it.
Eddie’s behavior also mirrors modern day people’s mentality of justifying their bad habits. Limitless appears to be one of the few, if only, films that “justifies” drug abuse. From the outset, the film appears to be a zany play on the structure of a “drug addiction” film, for Eddie gets hooked on a pill, is marveled by the way it makes him feel, and crashes into the dark abyss most drugs takes its users. Yet instead of halting to a tragic ending, Eddie finds ways to beat the drug’s side effects and ultimately ends up with a “if you don’t abuse it too hard, it can’t kill you” argument. A drug abuser’s justification fantasy is just one of the loony things lurking within this busy plot.
Despite the dark and despairing depths the film flirts with, director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) plays everything as if it were an energetic hoot, which it more or less is. I admire the way he pushes for visual creativity to express the fireworks show going on inside Eddie’s brain. We’re treated to elaborate zooms that cover a spectacular amount of area, animated numbers and letters that bounce around the screen, and jumps in Eddie’s memory that appear to make the screen bounce. Since Eddie’s brain is whirling with an overload of information and adrenaline, Burger makes the film appear in the same vein. It can feel a bit messy at times, but its never boring and certainly generates some excitement.
It’s good that Bradley Cooper can convey a natural likable quality, for it helps sell us on Eddie even when he's doing unlikeable things. Cooper has a gift for making preening narcissists appear to have a charming soul (something he employed superbly in The Hangover and The A-Team), and he teleports a great deal of sympathy as we go about Eddie’s journey. The big disappointment here is Robert DeNiro’s performance, which is completely phoned-in and half-asleep. DeNiro appears to be coasting on just memorizing his lines and doesn’t even bother giving his character any sinister sizzle, or even any energy. He may be growing older, but there are plenty of aging pros who could relish such a part (I think of the way Michael Douglass kept the juiciness going in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). As for Abbie Cornish, she brings as much sweetness as she can to her small role, in spite of the fact that Eddie treats her more like one of his capitalist trophies instead of true love.
Limitless is one of those enjoyable entertainments that asks you “What Would You Do?” The film gets its big kick from the fact that most Americans probably would do it just like Eddie did it. There are endless subplots popping up all over the place to keep you on the edge of your seat, and the script actually finds devious ways to tie everything up. Plus, it’s a true testament to Bradley Cooper that while Eddie isn’t the most admirable of characters, you certainly don’t mind spending two hours on the big screen with him.