Bradley Cooper is cast against type in Limitless—at least at first. His Eddie Morra is a schlubby, lazy writer with stringy hair and a dingy apartment. Blocked on his novel and dumped by his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish), Eddie bumps into his former brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), who happens to offer a cure for his life woes: a new designer drug, not yet on the market, that will allow Eddie to fulfill his potential. “They say we can only access 10% of our brains,” Vernon explains, adding that the drug, NZT, allows people to use the full 100.
Eddie should know better than to take drugs from someone spouting a popular, trailer-ready, and absolutely false notion about brain use. And by “they,” Vernon must mean hacky screenwriters. These same writers have strange ideas about what constitutes an impoverished loser: before he takes any enhancement drugs, Eddie already has a book contract and, briefly, a gorgeous (albeit frustrated) girlfriend, among other advantages. These suggest that Eddie’s transformation into the proper Bradley Cooper—quick-thinking master of the universe—is inevitable.
The new Eddie is tanned and smarmy, finishes his novel, wins back his girlfriend, and sets off to make boatloads of money. But those screenwriters ensure that the drug has worse side effects than Cooperification. After multiple doses of NZT, Eddie starts losing track of time, rampaging blindly through hook-ups, fights, and nights on the town. It turns out his blackouts are just as prodigious as his lucidity, though darker in nature, like Mr. Hyde’s. During these episodes, director Neil Burger seems mildly interested in how NZT represents American delusions of specialness and individuality, the idea that every schmuck has a secret genius inside, needing only the proper focus to unleash itself. But as Eddie stumbles into a few choice gonzo moments that fleetingly recall the Crank movies, Burger settles for a pulpy immorality tale, a cautionary tale without much caution.
Burger also made The Illusionist, a magician movie that had the misfortune to come out around the same time as Christopher Nolan’s superior The Prestige. The new film indulges in what might be called magic tricks, by way of music video styling: distorted zooms stitched into delirious single shots, blurred-together montages, and finance figures floating from Eddie’s ceiling. There’s a color scheme, too: Eddie’s normal life looks drab and overcast; when he takes the drug, colors brighten and the sun seems to shine brighter.
As such, Limitless, based on Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields, feels propulsive and cinematic, except when it’s weighed down with first-person narration, probably useful on the page, but not when listlessly explaining a movie. Bland descriptions like “I was jacked in, booted up” sound like they were written by the hapless pre-drug version of Eddie.
Even at his most humble, Eddie is rarely more than a passably okay guy, though Cooper plays both the loser and the cocky jerk convincingly. Freed of the obligation to root for him, the movie is sometimes snappy and twisty, if also empty and somewhat scattered, a thriller without much at stake. To help this theme along, Burger mixes his effects flourishes with some low-tech pleasures: Eddie’s scenes with his mentor/rival, financial titan Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), generate suspense over the simple matter of when and how the slyly irritable De Niro will call out the slick Cooper.
For all its moving parts, Limitless doesn’t quite pay off. The energy and subplots mostly dissipate before the credits roll, brushed aside with more clunky narration. The film lacks the extra mind-bending kick of brainy sci-fi. Though it has suitable fun with a clever would-be allegory, in the end, it’s still sweating for resonance.