Stars: Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, Robert De Niro, Anna Friel, Andrew Howard, Johnny Whitworth
Writer: Leslie Dixon, based on the novel THE DARK FIELDS by Alan Glynn
Director: Neil Burger
Release Date: March 18, 2011
There are (and will continue to be) a lot of science fiction thrillers that desperately want to be smart and snappy. LIMITLESS is the movie that those are trying to be. There is only one genre twist here, but it informs pretty much everything else that happens, which gives the movie a sound foundation. What makes LIMITLESS work so well, though, is the deftness of screenwriter Leslie Dixon, adapting Alan Glynn’s novel THE DARK FIELDS, the stylish display that gets close to the top without going over from director Neil Burger and the immediately engaging performance of leading man Bradley Cooper.
Cooper plays Eddie Morra, our protagonist and narrator, who we meet as he is perched on the ledge of a penthouse balcony, preparing to leap to his death before the door can be chainsawed through by people who don’t like him very much. We then flash back to how Eddie got into this precarious position. As an unkempt New York writer who can’t get started on his novel, Eddie has burned through his advance money and is dumped by his adored girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) when he runs into old acquaintance Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), who is now dealing in a pharmaceutical substance known as NZT-48.
Vernon swears the NZT-48 will help Eddie (true) and that it’s approved by the FDA, a lie Eddie decides to swallow – along with a single NZT-48 pill. Suddenly, Eddie’s writer’s block vanishes, he organizes his apartment and even helps his previously hostile landlady with her legal homework (and into bed) by recalling random facts from decades earlier.
The NZT-48 allows the human brain to function at one hundred percent, rather than the twenty percent it runs at for the rest of us. Eddie wants more pills – and gets them, though in a way he never imagined. In no time, his super-enhanced mind is allowing him to make millions in the stock market. There are, however, several downsides. Eddie learns, from someone who knows, that too much NZT causes personality shifts and blackouts, while stopping it causes not just a FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON return to a state of previous non-enhanced IQ, but also illness and death. Furthermore, someone out there really wants Eddie’s NZT stash, which is dwindling.
Director Burger has several effective visual techniques to give us an idea of how the NTZ affects minds. Colors become hyper-saturated and the person taking the NZT sees himself (or herself) moving in short, emphatic actions. A fish-eye lens is also employed, just enough to make a point, and there’s a lot of fun to be had with showing us how good Eddie feels when the NZT is inspiring him (the end of the writer’s block is charming). What’s especially impressive about Dixon’s screenplay is that when Eddie gets more intelligent, the dialogue and his actions back this up – the movie actually feels smart, rather than just telling us about it.
Having Eddie narrate for us is also a good move. He’s self-deprecating enough for us to like him and he never uses all that brain power to insult lesser mortals around him, even when they’re trying to kill him – although in that case, he employs the enhancement to figure out a battle strategy. Some of the results of this (probably unintentionally) look like things we’ve seen on CHUCK, but they’re no less fun for the similarity.
Cooper is a wonderfully versatile actor, playing Eddie’s wretched, meek, slacker side with the same conviction as he plays the articulate, confident persona. It helps LIMITLESS hugely that he’s very likable. Robert De Niro is suitably intimidating as a business tycoon who thinks perhaps Eddie is onto something, and Cornish is appealing as Eddie’s once and future girlfriend, who winds up in a very intense action sequence. Andrew Howard is both scary and funny as a Russian gangster involved in the proceedings.
There is a drug analogy here – since NZT is a drug (albeit a fictional one), it could hardly be otherwise – but it works fluidly within the story rather than beating us over the head. There are a few quibbles, such as how it is Eddie winds up being the only NZT user in his unique position (there’s an explanation, but it could be fleshed out a little more), and the denouement feels ever so slightly smug. However, for the most part, the main character is terrifically realized, the action is startling and inventive and the dialogue is choice. LIMITLESS emerges as a science fiction film about human intelligence that is not only intelligent but also utterly entertaining and blessed unpretentious.