Film Review: Limitless

Gripping thriller about the heady and nightmarish journey of a struggling writer who becomes a kind of tortured über-mensch after he takes an unapproved wonder drug, starring Bradley Cooper in a breakthrough performance.

Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) is no slouch when it comes to strong visuals, and with Limitless, a rollicking contemporary action yarn on steroids with a sci-fi edge, he has the raw material to deliver the goods. Bradley Cooper animates every frame (he’s in all of them) and Leslie Dixon’s witty script adaptation, Jo Willems’ amazing visuals and the film’s special effects allow for no distraction. Audiences appreciative of both the high and low ends of the medium will experience a nifty ride.

Limitless is very firmly planted in Manhattan and delivers some familiar types. The story centers on Eddie (Cooper), a scruffy, divorced slacker/writer living in a Chinatown tenement apartment that looks like it caught a bit of the Japan tsunami. His girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) unceremoniously dumps him, contributing to his writer’s block as he faces a book deadline.

But, as so often happens on city streets, Eddie bumps into his former brother-in-law Vernon (a spot-on Johnny Whitworth), a degenerate who deals drugs and has persuasive gifts. After listening to Eddie’s tales of woe, he gives him what he says is an $800 pill called NZT that is about to get government approval.

Eddie pops the miracle pill, a kind of steroid for the brain, and, whoosh, he’s suddenly endowed with amazing energy and 100% use of his brain. (We lesser humans can only use about 10%.)

As if on super-enhanced speed or coke (the film works as a metaphor for both drug use and those with upwardly mobile big-city ambitions of the extreme kind), Eddie is transformed into a guy who gets everything done and makes everything happen. He becomes brilliant at manipulating people (he solves the problem of his landlord’s nasty daughter by bedding her), finishes his manuscript in a matter of days to the delight of his editor, learns foreign languages like that, masters the tricks of the financial markets, makes a bundle and is in demand as a consultant. And, of course, he gets Lindy back. But big problems arrive early when he needs more NZT and others want some of Eddie’s stash.

When Eddie needs a few extra million for a big investment, he makes the mistake of doing business with Gennady (a brilliant Andrew Howard), a sleazy Russian Mr. Fixit. But he also does business with hedge-fund magnate Van Loon (Robert De Niro), whose patronage comes with both blessings and curses.

Until it all comes crashing down (and maybe back up again), Eddie lives the high life of beautiful women, gorgeous apartments, decadent trips to sunny paradises, etc. But there’s the matter of withdrawal that has consequences as super-sized as the drug itself.

Limitless gets pretty messy at the end (the twists and turns are a little too sharp and murky), but the film does what it’s supposed to do: It entertains as if empowered with its own NZT.