A gleeful celebration of nonstop doping, Limitless offers up a dim Better Living Through Chemistry fantasy that refuses to rain on its own pill-popping parade. With long, disheveled locks and matching facial scruff, novelist Eddie (Bradley Cooper) struggles with writer’s block until he runs into his ex-brother-in-law, Vernon (Johnny Whitworth). Over a subsequent Midtown Manhattan drink, Eddie is offered a clear tablet dubbed NZT that has supposedly been approved by the FDA (it hasn’t) and that is capable of unlocking the 80 percent of the human brain that is currently unused (it can). Eddie doesn’t hesitate to ingest it, and the world is suddenly his: Colors pop, sounds ring out, and forgotten memories spring forth from the deep, dark recesses of his cranium, thereby turning him into a no-prescription-necessary superhero.
Even when he finds Vernon executed in his apartment, a craving for the designer drug consumes Eddie, who doesn’t bother to consider the possibly hazardous consequences of his actions. But, to be fair, why would he, when his life is quickly transformed into a jet-setting dream come true, full of cliff-jumping fun in the glittering tropics, a completed novel that wows his editor, and regular opportunities to leave his girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish), mouth-agape-impressed when he orders food in fluent Italian and Chinese.
The sky’s the limit for Eddie, and director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, The Lucky Ones), revels in his protagonist’s newfound abilities via all manner of cinematographic showing off. Telescopic zooms through bustling NYC streets, fish lenses, CG-enhanced temporal skips and jumps, X-ray images of Eddie consuming pills, and a cascade of letters falling around the newly inspired writer are just a few of the visual embellishments that energize his trip. Yet whereas this enthusiastic depiction of getting high (or “clear,” as he describes it) would be an ideal means of parodying our narcotized age, Burger plays the material for straight thrills. And suspense, alas, is even rarer than NZT in Limitless, thanks to a script (by Leslie Dixon, based on an Alan Glynn novel) that introduces threats via the very sort of nonsensical behavior from which four-digit-IQ Eddie should be immune. With careerist motivation and greed following closely on the heels of enhanced mental faculties, Eddie delves into the stock market. But though his predictive acumen is high, his common sense is low: Impatient about the rate of his return, he turns to gnarly Eastern European loan shark Gennady (Andrew Howard) for a quick cash infusion, spending the rest of the film paying for this absurdly illogical decision.
As with so many of the film’s twists, Eddie’s decision to get into bed with street thugs might have made more sense if the story were interested in either exploring the inevitable hubris that stems from towering intelligence or following through on the early, Faustian-bargain undercurrents. Instead, Limitless simply hops aboard Eddie’s wild ride to the penthouse, where he helps orchestrate a historic merger for the ridiculously named energy titan Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro, sleepwalking once again in a nothing role), while evading Gennady and a mysterious knife-wielding pursuer (Tomas Arana).
Failing to be convincing when asked to embody Eddie’s true, pathetic self, Cooper otherwise struts about with his usual cockiness, an egomaniacal smirk frequently plastered on his face. Eddie is a potentially inspired strung-out Einstein caricature, but with unchecked drugging presented as a surefire path to self-actualization and rock-star bliss, he instead winds up being merely an unimpeachable hero. Without a complex thought about narcissism, merit, or addiction, Limitless is content to be an empty, one-note, satire-free fairy tale of avarice and corporate-political ambition—one that, ultimately, proves incapable of taking the nation’s current post-economic-crisis pulse.