The first thing that came to mind whenever I thought of the movie Limitless was that Kanye West song “Power,” which played through the film’s trailer. That’s a good freaking song and it works good in trailers (it’s been in many), and it makes sense that they’d choose it to represent a movie about the dangerous side of a man getting incredible thought capacity (“no one man should have all that power,” after all). In fact I might go so far as to give Mr. West a substantial amount of the credit for the film’s 155 million dollar worldwide gross, because there’s nothing about “low budget, high concept sci-fi thriller starring ‘that dude from the Hangover’” which screams blockbuster. But put a good beat (possibly one with tribal chants and a King Crimson sample) and you’ve got yourself something that actually looks pretty substantial and exciting. Of course there’s not a lot of truth in advertising but the movie still looked kind of cool, and at the very least it was a commercial film from Hollywood that wasn’t a remake and didn’t feature a super hero, so I thought I’d give it a spin.
The film is about Eddie Mora (Bradley Cooper), a struggling novelist living in squalor who’s about to be dumped by his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish). At his lowest point he bumps into an acquaintance named Vernon Gant (Johnny Whitworth) who offers him a sample of an “FDA approved” drug that will increase his brainpower tenfold and allow him to accomplish things with amazing speed. Mora tries the pill and is able to finish a novel in a matter of hours. Amazed at what the pill can do for him he returns for more only to find Gant dead in his apartment, murdered by some unknown assailant. Before allowing the police into the crime scene Mora finds Gants sizable stash of the wonder pill and pockets it. Cleared of all charges, Mora is free to use the drug in order to amass a fortune working for a powerful entrepreneur named Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), but soon he finds himself plagued by both the side effects of the drug and sought after by the people who eliminated Gant.
Where do I start with this script? Well, let’s start with its horrible, pointless, lazy use of voiceover. This is not a story that couldn’t be conveyed without Cooper walking the audience through the plot, nor does the voice over add any extra color or insights to the proceedings. I’m not even sure why they thought this voice over was necessary because it really serves no purpose. That’s just water under the bridge though, because this script also has holes and contrivances that make no sense when the slightest scrutiny is applied to the proceedings. For instance, early in the film Mora borrows $100,000 dollars from a loan shark named Gennady (Andrew Howard) in order to kick start his investment scheme. Not two scenes later it’s established that Mora’s character has already become a millionaire through this scheme, and you’d think the first thing he’d do is pay back the debt he owes to this violent sociopath, but no, that would have ruined the “surprise” return of the loan shark into the story late in the second act. The script also has a lot of other half baked “surprises” in store that you’d think someone with super-powered intelligence would see coming like when Robert De Niro’s character points out that one of his business rivals is a prodigy who came out of nowhere two years ago. Uh huh, that couldn’t possibly have something to do with the wonder drug that Mora’s been taking, could it?
All of this might have been a little easier to overlook if the execution were better, but director Neil Burger mostly just confirms his reputation as a mediocrity here, and his lack of innate talent is only more pronounced here given that he’s trying some visual tricks that don’t work out. For one, Burger makes the decision to brightly illuminate all the scenes where Mora is under the influence of the wonder drug and then give all the scenes where he’s not under the influence a dark and gloomy look. It’s a rather tacky and distracting palette and it isn’t helped by the fact that both lighting schemes are rather ugly. Elsewhere Burger tries to illustrate the effects and side effects of the drug through a variety of flashy music video tricks (including a sex scene shot in what appears to be a 300-style speed ramp) which he simply does not pull off with any kind of real panache. A good actor in the central role would have also helped the film, but alas, Bradley Cooper does not bring any kind of likability or even some relatable humanity to the main character. As such Eddie Mora comes off as something of a selfish and irresponsible douchebag throughout the film, which only make the film’s anticlimactic ending all the more frustrating, because [spoilers ahead] the character basically gets away without any consequences and is actually rewarded for his behavior. I’m just going to assume that the studio was to blame for this lame ending, firstly because you can really see the moment where things start to feel tacked on and secondly because this is just generally the kind of idea that only marketing committees can collectively be stupid enough to come up with.
Are there any redeeming qualities on display in Limitless? Well, there are a few. I suppose the basic premise does bring up some fairly interesting questions like “what’s the point of gaining intelligence if you can’t retain it,” even if the script doesn’t adequately explore the implications. I guess there are also a couple of scenes in which the character’s increased intelligence is at least used somewhat creatively… I’m reaching here. Really though, aside from the theory about the trailer that I outlined at the beginning I have no idea why this thing resonated at all with audiences. This is exactly the kind of dumb Hollywood movie whose shortcomings can only be masked by distracting the audience with special effects and explosions, and this doesn’t even have that. It’s a poorly executed update on the Faust legend that doesn’t even have the balls to punish it’s lead character for selling his soul to the devil.
*1/2 out of Four