'Limitless' Review

A movie about a ‘smart pill’ takes some dumb plot turns.

Limitless should be so much smarter than it is. The movie is about a down-and-out guy who takes a “smart pill,” then can instantly write a book in four days, learn a language in hours and run rings around lawyers, criminals and financial advisers. He’s a mega-brain on steroids, a Superman for the Information Age. He is also a comic reflection of a cultural shift in American perceptions of masculinity that is beginning to value a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs more than a Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. Alas, the filmmakers don’t use him very smartly.

The protagonist is well played by Bradley Cooper, who performs the transformations with aplomb, but once the movie turns him into a mega-brain, its makers can’t quite figure out what to do with him: Do we want him to be funny or serious? First the movie puts him through a few “magic tricks” that look like an audition for Wall Street 3: A Money Mind Never Sleeps. After this, it throws him into a routine paranoid action thriller. Disappointing.

Not so disappointing, though, that Relativity won’t see some smart money heading its way as Cooper goes into overdrive in a performance that makes a script by the estimable Leslie Dixon (Outrageous Fortune) and quirky direction by Neil Burger (The Illusionist) seem better than they are.

A New York author named Eddie Morra (Cooper) is faced with monumental “writer’s block” — i.e., he hasn’t written a single word of a long overdue novel — then gets a sweet goodbye from his long-suffering girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish). By chance, he runs into his former-brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth). Always a slick hustler, this Mephistopheles is pushing a new, unregulated drug called NZT. Naturally, he gives Eddie a sample.

The pharmaceutical allows Eddie access to 100% of his brain. The effect apparently wears off in a day, but when Eddie goes back to his supplier for more pills he finds that another client in an even more acute situation has murdered him and tossed his apartment. Fortunately, Eddie is able to find — without benefit of a smart pill — the entire drug stash, enough for many, many months.

In no time, “enhanced Eddie” has dashed off his novel, speaks Italian to a maitre d’, bangs every girl he desires and amasses a fortune playing the stock market. His girlfriend now wants him back and a mega-mogul, Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro) — gotta love that name — brings him aboard to mastermind a huge corporate merger.

Burger tries all kinds of visual trickery to imagine the hyperflow of information into a highly receptive brain: When Eddie is writing, letters fall from the ceiling; multiple Eddies are seen performing tasks; flattering light gently bathes Eddie’s face; and, in the most inventive yet strangely unsuccessful gimmick, the camera appears to rush through Manhattan streets, gobbling up blocks within seconds.

The movie takes a couple of hard right turns before getting to the effects of such persistent and strenuous use of a brain’s synapses. First, Eddie switches careers by becoming the overnight wonder boy of Wall Street-- a turn that brings the movie to a near halt with computer day trading, conferences with brokers, meetings with Van Loon and a litany of data and flow charts that stops just short of power-point boredom.

Then gangsters and stalkers begin to shadow him. And police begin to dog Eddie, whom they suspect of murdering a young model. It feels like a desperate attempt to up the suspense ante, and meanwhile potentially fruitful plot elements such as Eddie’s newfound relationship with Libby and his confrontation with an ex-wife (Anna Friel), who suffers from the aftereffects of prolonged NZT use, get tossed aside.

Well, filmmakers tell the stories they want to tell, but here those choices compromised the movie --instead of letting this Faustian tale run its natural, uncharted course, it indulges in the kind of  bloody showdown you can see in any number of crude genre movies.

Opens Friday, March 18 (Relativity)
Cast Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Abbie Cornish, Anna Friel, Andrew Howard
Director Neil Burger
Producers Leslie Dixon, Scott Knoopf, Ryan Kavanaugh
Rated PG-13, 105 minutes