Dir: Neil Burger
Everybody harbors a fantasy. Break them all down and you’ll find that most dreams verge in one of two directions – power or possession. Lovers and hoarders alike want to own things – to make them captive and keep them, close and forever. But the power-hungry? For them, the dream is one of perpetual motion – bigger, better, faster, higher…always gaining, always going forward. Like many a great American fable, Limitless explores this latter desire. But in reaching for too many angles at once and regrettably opting for flash over substance, it obscures a thought-provoking story of addiction and moral culpability in a sea of unoriginal twists and cinematic smoke and mirrors.
A seemingly ever-caddish Bradley Cooper plays the film’s pseudo-protagonist, Eddie Morra. Morra is a would-be sci-fi author suffering from acute writer’s block. He apathetically allows his personal hygiene and private life to dissipate while he wallows in endless lethargy. Kindly but firmly dumped by his successful girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish), Eddie soon finds himself at the loosest of all possible ends; and then a sleazy ex-brother-in-law hands him a pill that will rock his world.
The super drug is only vaguely explained – but that’s because this is the fantasy part of the story, an extreme vehicle (frequently enhanced with splashy special effects) by which to explore Eddie’s transformation from decent shlub to overnight literary success to drug-fueled Renaissance man to hopeless addict and power-chaser. Naturally dissatisfied with the mere completion of the pages owed to his editor made possible by the pill, Eddie immediately gives in to the desire for more power. Soon he is rich, sophisticated, socially mobile and hopelessly hooked on a top-secret drug, one that is viciously sought after, dwindling in supply and ultimately fatal to anyone who kicks the habit.
Desperation and dangerous bravado ensues – and Cooper, whether by inherent type or intended design, captures Morra’s growing comfort with sleaze and deceit like a champ. We don’t like him, even when he’s charming, and we aren’t supposed to. But it is hard to chalk this up to superior acting skill when Morra’s struggle is not only obviously that of an addict to both drugs and power, but also one that reminds us too well of the financial and political puppet masters who dig us into sinkholes of dependency and corruption. It’s no coincidence that Morra’s involvement with Wall Street tycoon Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro) rests on critical energy shares and a shadily developed corporate merger, or that Van Loon warns Eddie of the dangers he faces as a man granted great power without ever being forced to earn it. Limitless plays at conspiracy-theory thriller territory and making neon-bright ties to real-life power imbalance. Pity, then, that it is also sorely lacking in the necessary subtlety or originality to pull it off.
As evidence suggesting use of the “brilliance pill” amongst other big-name meteoric risers mounts, and as Eddie’s life – along with those of his friends, lovers and associates – grows increasingly endangered, we are given the groundwork upon which to pass final judgment. Will Eddie succumb to addiction at any cost? Will he die trying to kick it? Or will he, as the film’s ending tempts us to consider, become so practiced in the art of enhanced-performance manipulation as to succeed in “fixing” the drug, maintaining his flawless façade and getting away with it?
Limitless is based on a book by Alan Glynn called The Dark Fields. It seems only fair to mention this, lest studios get credit for a sub-par thriller that is in fact another story from another time entirely, one where the original title – lifted from the last page of The Great Gatsby – adds to the thematic entirety of the story.
The ending is arguably the strongest element in Limitless, a classic scene fit for the genre and one of the only excitingly ambiguous moments in the film. If you can ignore the bright lights, loud music, zooming camera effects and glitzy toys bludgeoning you get from every side throughout the rest of the movie, you just might enjoy the moral crux that hides beneath the cracks. But while it’s a decent funhouse ride in its current form, Limitless might have been a much better film with less box-office pandering and a little more daring thrown into the mix.
by Lauren Westerfield