by Tony Dayoub
If a film's protagonist is supposed to be the smartest person in the world and the viewer is often one step ahead of him then something must be wrong with the movie. And so it is with the flawed Limitless, a cautionary bit of sci-fi addressing what could go wrong if an average man suddenly finds a means to becoming a super-intellectual for 24 hours at a time, provided he continues to take a "magic" pill. Even the casual moviegoer can figure the way most of the movie's situations will turn out without furrowing their brow too much.
Skeezy writer Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) pretends he's writing some profound science fiction novel. In truth, he is too busy spending his time telling everyone at the local bar about the book to have put one word of his story down on paper. His upwardly mobile girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) is smart enough to recognize the downward spiral Eddie is succumbing to and breaks things off. Walking the streets of New York in a daze, Morra runs into his ex-brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth), a "reformed" drug dealer who offers him NZT-48, a pill to cure his writer's block. Not only does Morra finish his novel in less than a week, he begins learning new languages, duplicates remembered moves of Bruce Lee's when fending off a passel of muggers on the subway platform, and ends up advising a financial tycoon (Robert De Niro) on a merger. The downside is that Morra becomes strung out on the narcotic, a reaction which leads to a portentous confrontation with his ex-wife (Anna Friel), one of the few users to have recovered from an NZT addiction.
Grungy enough to play the vagabond writer before his drug-fueled evolution, and glam enough to sparkle after Morra's mental acceleration, Cooper takes full advantage of his opportune casting to turn Limitless into a star vehicle. In nearly every scene, he is given the chance to crack a joke, grimace with withdrawal pains, and finally overcome nearly every obstacle he encounters with no small measure of physicality. He is comedian, brooding thespian, and action hero all at once, a good hat-trick for any actor trying to claw their way to the foreground. Cooper, the breakout star of The Hangover, should rise to the top of the bankable male actor heap with his turn in Limitless.
Director Neil Burger knows this too, accentuating Cooper's crystalline eyes with a dash of oversaturation whenever the NZT kicks in. The director—who so masterfully used cinematic sleight of hand to obscure the inner workings of his magician period drama, The Illusionist (2006)—keeps Limitless moving at breakneck speed. Jo Willems' outstanding cinematography is literally propulsive, a few times utilizing a disorienting effect that can best be described as an endless zoom through New York's streets (am I glad this wasn't a 3D movie) among other tricks. Ostensibly, it is meant to evoke the hero's quicksilver mental faculties. In reality, it shoves the viewer past some glaring deficiencies. Either way, it keeps Limitless percolating strongly enough to make the film a worthwhile if somewhat superficial piece of entertainment.
The film's ending scuttles some of the promise Limitless seems so swollen with earlier on. Often, the viewer can anticipate some of the pat resolutions to tangential complications which crop up around Cooper's Morra. A Russian loan shark who staked Morra's rise through the financial markets is dispensed with simple-mindedly. And a mysterious man following Morra is obviously tied to the dirty dealings of a pair of businessmen who may be connected to NZT. Other times subplots are left lacking a resolution, as in a woman's murder which implicates Morra during one of his drug-induced blackouts. Still, while not destined to become a classic, the movie talks as big a game as its main character does. A summer sleeper which just happens to have opened a few months early, Limitless overcomes its defects through sheer exuberance.