By Scott Martin

Limitless, USA, 2011

Directed by Neil Burger

Limitless is limited. Limitless is limited, but it proposes something interesting. Granted, its proposal is one we’ve heard dozens of times, a couple of which were to chilling effect (echoes of the 1968 film Charly, based on Daniel Keyes’ short story, “Flowers for Algernon,” are plenty), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun story. The man with nothing suddenly becomes the man with everything. Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is given a wonder drug that allows him to use all of his brain, rather than just twenty percent.

Side effects may include nausea, blackouts, migraines, and Robert De Niro’s performance.

The drug is referred to as NZT. When Eddie runs into his ex-brother-in-law, Vernon Gant (Johnny Whitworth), who just happens to be a drug dealer, he’s convinced that the drug is street legal and FDA approved. This is because Eddie is a moron, and a former drug addict with a concurrent drinking problem. Also, his girlfriend, Lindy (Abby Cornish), has just left him, and he’s a novelist with a pending deadline who can’t seem to get past the first word on the computer. After he takes the drug, he’s able to open up his mind and pull out everything he’s ever seen, read, or heard. He finishes his book in record time, wins at everything he plays, and manages to become a ladies’ man just by showering. His narration (which, in terms of past/present/future tense, makes absolutely no sense) asks of us “What would you do?” Well, certainly not that.

Limitless becomes limited when it gives us a lead character we can’t get behind. Cooper’s Eddie isn’t anyone to root for. He’s an alienating wimp who becomes an egocentric junkie — not really the archetypal hero. At least in “Flowers for Algernon,” Charly was likable.

The film hops on and off its tracks when Eddie’s problems get more and more intense. Murders start happening, the pill inevitably starts to run out, friends turn their backs on him, money is owed, jobs are on the line, etc. By taking a drug that lets you see every possible outcome of every possible situation, how can we expect tension to come from any sort of dramatic set piece the writers or director create? By making the supply of the drug limited? No. By making the character go through withdrawal and be a better person at the end? No. I won’t go into any further detail, but I will say that the film finds ways around those outs. Cheaply, and lazily.

Our supporting cast is comprised of actors who should know better. Abbie Cornish, brilliant in Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009), is reduced to “the blonde girlfriend,” and Robert De Niro is – again – reduced to his own stereotype. He plays Carl Van Loon, a powerful businessman, with only one of the many notes in his arsenal. It’s saddening to see the great actor collect his paycheck and sleepwalk through something that should have been interesting. I’d go so far as to say that he’s the most depressing thing about a film whose message winds up being vile and uneducated: Take a drug addict and give him a drug that makes him into Superman. Now watch him squirm without the drug. Now watch his life become perfect. Remember kids – drugs are bad.

Of course, this is a moot point – we all know drugs are bad. And, of course, there aren’t any drugs that do what this film’s drug does. This is the good news. The bad news is that the film doesn’t care. Films in general are supposed to be about escape. It’s the emotion-delivery business. We all know that, too. So, when we go to see a film like Limitless, shouldn’t we get something more than this? I will give the film that the drug’s side effects are serious – people who have taken it are either dead, or wishing they were – but that’s because their supply ran out. Eddie’s immediate goal is to keep the supply from running out. Sure, he’ll get off the drug eventually. Yes, the events around him are terrible, but Super-Eddie can do anything.

Remember, kids: Don’t do drugs. Stay in school.

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