Looking at Bradley Cooper for a couple of hours is never a bad thing, so there’s that. Otherwise, Limitless starts off as an ambitious, gripping, quasi-sci-fi thriller and turns into an over-the-top mess.
The premise is fabulous: that an illegal new pill called NZT will make you ultrasmart and ultrafast, a brainy superhero. I’d take that. So does Copper as Eddie Morra, a blocked writer and all-around loser who gets it from his shady ex-brother-in-law. It’s fun to see Loser Eddie with his ponytail and flabby tummy because we know that as soon as he pops a pill he’ll turn into … Bradley Cooper, with a great haircut and tailored clothes. Cooper keeps us on his side, playing Eddie with natural modesty as the guy we’d all become under those circumstances instead of an arrogant jerk.
From the start, there is also plenty of drug-dealing intrigue. The brother-in-law is murdered the day after he gives Eddie his first pill. Eddie finds the body, and the NZT stash. It won’t last forever but it’s a big stash. We see Eddie finish a book in days, as letters of the alphabet rain down on him from the ceiling; where is that drug when you need it? Before long he’s speaking Italian to supermodels and making megadeals with a financial titan who has the unfortunate name Van Loon, and is fortunately played with gerat authority by Robert De Niro (although he has a much tinier role than the trailer makes you think). Abbie Cornish, as the girlfriend who left Eddie he was floundering, even comes back.
Director Neil Burger (he directed the sluggish The Illusionist) has some problems with tone and pace, but at first they’re slight. He’s a little too fond of making the camera zoom around faster than humans can move, and race through the interior of Eddie’s brain; apparently NZT also turns your brain orange. Those flourishes don’t get in the way of the suspense, though.
But we know better than Eddie that he’s bound to crash. He finds that if he skips a day of NZT his brain slows down, and it looks like he was no genius in the first place. He begins to feel ill. I’m sure the filmmakers didn’t intend for the movie to fall apart in the same way Eddie’s body does, but Limitless becomes a shambles. As if illegal drugs and superpowers weren’t enough, the story drags in more murders and a huge, violent climactic episode that is so ridiculous it’s amazing it was ever filmed. Even fantasy thrillers shouldn’t be so ludicrously overdone. And the epilogue, meant to be a wry surprise, is even more mind-bogglingly stupid than the multi-murder climax.
Even when it goes off the rails, though, the film is never dull. You can see the invention and flashes of originality that must have attracted Cooper and De Niro to the idea. I wouldn’t warn you away from Limitless, but I will warn you that it is a vibrant lost opportunity.
Here’s the trailer, showing the film at its best: