Bottom line: B-
Every so often a film gets released with a title that allows for negative critics to come along and make terrible puns about the shortcomings of the movie. Limitless is one such unfortunately named example. It’s a film that has a lot of flashy style and fun moments going for it, but breaks down under a lack of substance and morals.
Bradley Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a grubby would-be science-fiction author with a book deal but no work ethic. One day the brother of his ex-wife, who used to be his drug dealer, mystically introduces him to a miracle drug that purports to access the mythical untapped capacity of the human brain. While on the drug, Eddie is able to complete his work in record time and learns everything from foreign languages to complex financial algorithms overnight. Eddie scores the remaining stockpile of the pill and begins a career in stock trading, creating a clear path of rise and fall cautionary depictions of drug use, the consequences of success without putting in all the real work and other moral tropes that the film never follows through on.
The visual style has two distinct approaches. First, while Cooper plays Eddie as a downtrodden loser, the film is grimy, filled with grays all around the frame, but whenever he pops his magic brain pill, the dirt is scrubbed away to a brightly golden sheen, as though the drug has created an intellectual clarity. Director Neil Burger employs a lot of fisheye shots to bring viewers into the experience of the drug, showing letters raining down into Eddie’s apartment while writing a book, or his ceiling tiles flipping over to reveal stock data. Most intriguing is the use of a seemingly endless zooms that open the film by relentlessly moving forward through taxicabs in New York City. It gets repeated a few other times in the film, showing the ways in which Eddie loses track of time on a repetitive path, one of handful of predictably bad side effects to the drug.
Robert De Niro shows up as a wealthy financial big shot, in a smaller role than he’s used to, but he brings a surprising amount of depth to the character in the way he deals with Bradley Cooper’s quick rise to prominence without putting in the work like he did. At the very least, it isn’t the same kind of embarrassment De Niro’s reputation has suffered with the continuation of the Meet the Parents series.
Unfortunately, the morality of Limitless is where it fails miserably despite all of the fun sequences and curious visual techniques. The film never seems to want to portray the drug in a negative light, even with a kind of facetious irony. It also gets bogged down in too many little side plots, one involving a confusingly foreign loan shark, another with Eddie potentially committing murder during a blackout, his ex-wife revealing the long-term effects of the drug and Eddie’s current girlfriend. Cooper’s actions go unpunished through the entire film, and with a satirical tone absent, it just ends seeming that if you’re ever in the position to take a drug that will give you a leg up on your competition, you should go for it. Cooper extracts himself from a cavalcade of implausible scenarios, but as long nobody reads below the surface of the film, it makes for slightly enjoyable viewing.