Nobody ever went wrong at the outset with a power fantasy, every superhero franchise is built on them, and director Neil Burger (“The Illusionist”) has found a pretty good one in Alan Glynn’s novel delivered to us in the form of “Limitless.”
Through the miracle pill NZT, Eddie can access his memory with almost perfect recall and observe and analyze data at an inhuman rate. And not just his long-term memory, he can also somehow stimulate muscle memory as well, so things like practice go right out the window. His mind works so fast, if he’s seen something like a self-defense move in an infomercial once, he can analyze how its done and apply it to the situation at hand in what appears to us normal mortals as the blink of an eye.
It really is the perfect power fantasy, combining enhanced abilities like intelligence and charm (turning loser Eddie into a smooth talking socialite in no time) in such a way that the user/viewer doesn’t even have to imagine practicing or any other sort of work to achieve success. He just knows how to do it.
Which is usually where most power fantasies go off the rails, because the fantasy is so enticing and easy to sell a lot of writer’s don’t give enough thought to where to go once the power is attained. Storytelling isn’t the goal in that sort of stuff, daydreaming is. If drama is attempted, a popular choice is as an anti-drug allegory which is the form “Limitless” seems to be attempting. I say seems to be because screenwriter Leslie Dixon’s (“The Heartbreak Kid,” “Hairspray”) script is going in so many different directions it’s hard to make out exactly what the point is.
On one level it’s something of a conventional thriller. Soon after getting his first taste of NZT, Eddie’s source is horribly murdered and he begins to get the sense that someone is following him, someone trying to find the packet of pills he stole from the dead dealer’s crime scene. On another it’s a tale of high finance hijinks and intrigue as Eddie gets involved with an industrial robber baron (Robert De Niro) after his new found intelligence causes him to give up the writing world in exchange for mastering the ins and outs of the stock market. And on yet another level it’s something of traditional gangster film after a Russian loan shark (Anthony Howard) gets one of Eddie’s magic pills by accident and begins leaning on Eddie for more so that he can continue climbing the underworld ladder. It’s just all over the place.
It is often an enjoyable mess, though. Burger is equally facile at plumbing the depths of Eddie’s drug fueled power binges and tightening the screws when the myriad bad guys start closing in. He and cinematographer Jo Willems (“Hard Candy,” “30 Days of Night”) have developed an engaging look to denote the turned-on view of the world the drug’s takers have and explain visually what it’s like to take in everything all at once.
And Cooper (“The Hangover”) turns out be an able lead. He’s charming enough to pull off the fast-talking, hyper-concentrated version of Eddie, and enough of a spaz to make you believe the loser version. He’s at his best when he’s on the drug, literally, cool, calm and collected even when Eddie becomes a suspect of a murder he may or may not have committed because frequent use of the drug has started to lead to blackouts.
Because like any good power fantasy, “Limitless” does take time to consider the downside of instant gratification, and the magic pill does have its side effects. The big one being once you start taking it you can’t ever stop, because it will kill you. It also changes the taker in subtle ways, leaving a little bit of their humanity behind, something Eddie himself doesn’t notice but his long suffering girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) does, and she doesn’t like it one bit after she finally sees through the surface of successful Eddie.
Despite the crowd of thriller sub-plots that don’t seem to work well together, the first half of “Limitless” is pretty good and it feels like its really going somewhere. It’s not somewhere terribly original, turning into a pretty heavy-handed allegory for the ills of drug use, especially by the point Eddie is considering drinking another NZT users blood just to get another hit.
Which is not coincidentally about the point the entire thing goes off the rails. Despite a few attempts here and ther,e Dixon’s screenplay isn’t really interested in details, it’s just interested in getting through the next scene. To do so she piles incompatible genre element on top of genre element into a lumpy misshapen package all sides of which may not be visible in our quaint four dimensions. In the process she eventually looses the thread altogether and we end up with an allegory with no moral and a conclusion that like NZT’s blessings is unearned and thus unappreciated. The focus is all on how the movie affects you from moment to moment, but when you step back and try to take it in as a whole, it’s a mess.