It’s not a new premise — the core concept has been the basis of everything from syrupy dramas (Charly) to unfunny farces (Senseless). But with the new sci-fi twinged Limitless, the idea has definitely been given a flashy new update. That’s because director Neil Burger (of Interview with the Assassin and The Illusionist fame) imbues his modern cautionary tale with as much high tech directorial panache as possible. Numbers fall from the sky. Stock prices crawl across the ceiling. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, he employs a unique first person POV camera move that seems to turn a standard walk through the streets of New York into a journey down deep into Alice’s own Mensa IQ rabbit hole.
Bradley Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a down on his luck writer who needs something to get his muse jumpstarted. After running into his ex-brother in law (who used to be a drug dealer), he discovers a pill called NZT. Allowing humans to completely utilize 100% of their brain, the tiny clear tablet is Eddie’s godsend. Within days, he’s finished his book, cleaned up his act, and is back with his last gal pal Lindy (Abby Cornish). Hoping to make a killing in the market, he borrows money from the Russian mob and begins bankrolling huge profits. This catches the eye of big-time wheeler and dealer Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro). He wants Eddie on his team. Little does he know that our hero is down to his last few samples and is on the run from both the gangsters he borrowed from and the drug’s damaging side effects.
Limitless is one of those Spring season rarities — a wonderfully entertaining film that doesn’t reach beyond its own easily obtainable cinematic goals. It features a terrific performance by Cooper (who is perfect at self-assured smarm), winning work from De Niro (who, for once is not ratcheted into Method overdrive), and a twist-filled story that keeps us interested and engaged. There’s no philosophical or moral debate, no craven “what ifs” thrown in the way of our enjoyment. Instead, Burger knows he has a stacked deck, and plays each one of his winning cards with expert skill. As he did with his 2006 magician movie, the director defines his territory and then goes about meticulously making it work. When the story threatens to let him down (as when Eddie goes on an NZT withdrawal bender), Burger just ups the “wow” factor.
Thus we get forced perspective, faked 3D, ultra-stylized scope, and epic moments when the movie seems to be making up the celluloid language as it goes along. Luckily, none of this purposeful glitz gets in the way of the rest of the film. Cooper gets us to care about this jerk in training so that, once his recall becomes total, we actually root for the lug. Similarly, De Niro plays villainous without resorting to the typical mustache twirling. Instead, his evil is found in the real world setting of the current financial crisis, a place where cutthroat competition leads to decidedly disturbing consequences. Sure, we get caught up in all the good guy/bad guys hijinx between Eddie and the mob, but it’s the potential harm that he and Van Loon can accomplish that’s really unnerving.
Limitless is not perfect, often forcing its loopy ideas down the willing viewer’s throat, and the ending does seem a tad pat. But in an annual parade of pathetic product meant to hold us in place until Summer can come along and provide the popcorn, this is a fun and adventurous mainstream amusement. It’s nothing new, but it’s told in a completely captivating way.