Originally (and enigmatically) titled “Dark Fields,” Neil Burger’s latest film now bears the bland moniker “Limitless,” making it sound like a film scraped together from D.C. Comics’ dregs. But rather than being another entry in the seemingly neverending superhero genre, “Limitless” is a sci-fi-inflected thriller that never quite lives up to its premise or its lead actor.
Paradoxically absorbing, yet cliched and empty, this power-based New York story is a bit of an entertaining thrill ride, probably far more popcorn-engrossing than it deserves to be — we’ll credit the director with the editing and forward propulsive storytelling engine — but nevertheless, “Limitless” doesn’t have much meat or depth to it. But we suppose, as the aforementioned elements attest, there is some escapist value therein.
In the reality-grounded sci-fi pic, Bradley Cooper (“The Hangover”) stars as Eddie Morra, the apotheosis stereotype of a struggling writer who suffers from crippling writer’s block (or is it laziness or avoidance?) and an inability to comb his hair. His ladder-ascending book editor girlfriend (Abbie Cornish, of the criminally underseen “Bright Star”) dumps him because she’s had enough. For years she’s suffered through his lack of motivation and direction, and he has hasn’t written a page of the novel he’s promised his publisher. She’s out the door, he’s now down and out and just as all seems lost — tada! great timing — he runs into his slimy ex-brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth, “3:10 to Yuma”), who offers him a temporary solution: NZT, a $800-a-dose smart drug that Vernon swears has been tested by the FDA and will hit the market next year. Only guess what? It’s not street legal.
On a whim, Eddie takes the NZT, and the results are nearly instantaneous: rather than the 20% of our brains humans reportedly use, Eddie now has access to nearly 100% of his mind. Initially, he uses his newfound mental power, super confidence and intelligence-based influence to seduce women and finish his book, but then his superwhiz brain realizes there’s money to be made on Wall Street and discerning the algorithm of stock-broking success proves to be child’s play. As Eddie’s power and bank account balloons, he draws attention both good and bad, including billionaire Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro) who wants to use Eddie’s investing acumen for his own gains. But more dangerous, less controlled men — who Eddie goes to for the initial loan to jump start his Wall Street career — are after him, ensuring that Eddie has to use his brain to stay alive.
Though NZT is contrasted with the jittery feeling you get from caffeine or similar highs, we still felt like we’d had one too many Trenta Caffè Americanos for much of the film. While Burger’s “The Illusionist” was steeped in silent-era style, he’s equally devoted to the kinetic energy of “Limitless.” But as if directed by the Michel Gondry inventive school of visual tricks on cocaine, the picture is stylistic overkill. And yet, it’s an entertaining cut-a-second, fast-moving ride that goes non-stop from Eddie’s first pill until it comes to a thudding halt a half hour from its conclusion. Like most of those on NZT, the film tries to level off on the dosage once the audience has (over) learned that yes: Eddie is now hyper aware of everything, and while your eyeballs are done a favor, the narrative engine starts to stutter. As silly, strained, and slow as “Limitless” gets, it’s engaging. Even if you roll your eyes, you won’t be able to look away.
Not only are the onscreen events compelling, Cooper again proves he should be getting bigger, better parts in bigger, better movies. He’s charming in a role that others would have only been douchey in, making this all watchable. With all his know-it-all arrogance, you shouldn’t be rooting for his Eddie to make it out alive, but you can’t help but be on his side and wait to see where he ends up. He’s in practically every shot, but you still want to see more of him.
Meanwhile, Cornish is only in a handful of scenes, and “Limitless” is certainly the poorer for it. She doesn’t get to do much (other than use winter sports equipment in a more entertaining way than the entire Vancouver Olympics), but she does the best with the part written for her. De Niro is serviceable, but like most of the villains or sub-heavys in the film (and there are a few), he’s essentially written like a cartoon character.
The problem with “Limitless” isn’t so much Burger’s hyperactive direction — which works for what it is — as it is screenwriter Leslie Dixon’s groan-inducing script. Based on Alan Glynn’s novel, the screenplay arrives from the writer of such messes as “Pay It Forward,” “Loverboy,” “The Heartbreak Kid,” “Look Who’s Talking Now” and too many other awful movies to name. What was an interesting, energetic premise gets weighed down by bad lines, exposition, awful narration and and scenes that seem to drag longer than most movies. Morally, “Limitless” is pretty bankrupt too, and without giving away too much, the picture follows dystopian sci-fi tropes, but somehow everything still ends up sunny for our jerkbag, but likeable, hero. We’ll follow Cooper anywhere, but this script almost makes us regret that choice. [C+]