A film about a super-intelligent protagonist doesn’t necessarily need a smart script (although it never hurts), but it does need to act like a smart movie. The direction needs a confident style, tone, and pacing that conveys the sense that the movie, like the protagonist, knows what’s going on and is ten steps ahead of the audience even though the actions on screen may be totally mundane and unremarkable. Neil Burger’s Limitless never manages this task. There’s plenty of visual flare, but it feels more like distraction than thoughtful support for its story. Lead actor Bradley Cooper tries to make the most of his performance, but he lacks the everyman charm that would provide his character with some much-needed sympathy. Undercut by poor writing, miscasting, and simplistic directing, Limitless may center on a brilliant mind but it lacks a convincing tone.
Eddie Morra (Cooper) is a struggling writer who has lost his girlfriend and is about to be kicked out of his apartment. Walking down the street, Eddie has a chance encounter with his sketchy former brother-in-law, Vernon (Johnny Whitworth). Vernon says he’s working for a pharmaceutical company and offers Eddie a clear pill known as “NZT”. Vernon explains, “You know how we only use 20% of our brains? Well this pill lets you use all of it.” Instead of explaining that the brain doesn’t work in a matter of capacity but rather different lobes handle different functions, Eddie simply takes the pill, becomes super smart for about 12 hours, bangs his landlord’s wife, cleans his apartment, and finishes half his novel.
Naturally, Eddie comes back to Vernon looking for more NZT, gets his hands on more of it, but then begins to discover that the pill has negative consequences such as blackouts, severe withdrawal, headaches, and other fun side effects that would be quickly muttered in the commercial for NZT if NZT were FDA approved and on the market.
There are interesting ideas swirling at the edges of Limitless. The film has the opportunity to satirize our prescription-drug, quick-fix culture, or even take an easier route by making the story about a high-functioning addict. But Limitless ignores these opportunities and never builds to anything thoughtful or provocative. Instead, Burger’s imagination into Eddie’s hyper-intelligence extends to over-saturating the color palette and a few clever visual effects.
Throughout the film, I couldn’t help but compare the direction of Limitless to the TV show Burn Notice. Burn Notice is not the smartest show ever. It’s highly formulaic and cribs from such low-rent action series like MacGyver. But the show features intelligent protagonists and it carries itself like a smart show. The narration is professorial, which in turn casts the viewer as the student. Since students usually considering their professors to be smart, the show looks smart as a result. It’s a clever way to deliver a tone that’s not inherent in the script. Limitless lacks that cleverness and creativity and as a result we’re not drawn into Eddie’s story. Instead, we’re constantly seeing its silliness and shallowness.
If Burger had delivered on making us feels that the movie was intelligent, then we would probably be too wrapped up to care that Eddie does dumb stuff like keep all of his NZT in one place rather than split it up so that if one stash is stolen, he’s not totally screwed. Also, the film takes absurd shortcuts, like Eddie telling a scientist he’ll pay $2 million to re-create NZT. We’re led to believe that Eddie can figure out the intricacies of anything in a short amount of time, so why doesn’t Eddie just study chemistry and reverse-engineer NZT on his own?
The inanity of the plot is made worse by the vapidity of Morra’s character. While Cooper once nailed the everyman role on Alias, it’s a part that no longer suits him. He’s simply too handsome and his charm is more smarmy than good-natured. He’s not helped by the fact that Eddie is a selfish jerk who rarely seems bothered by the collateral damage NZT has caused and that all of his success is unearned. There’s also no help from the supporting cast. If you needed more proof that Robert De Niro (who plays a high-powered businessman who hires Morra) just doesn’t care any more, you can add his performance in Limitless to the evidence locker.
Burger deserves credit for at least attempting to give Limitless a pulse, but he never gives the movie a clever beat. The script has some witty lines of dialogue littered throughout, but the story never comes to anything inspired or novel. Limitless clearly wants to be a smart thriller but it doesn’t know how to be smart or thrilling.