Limitless is a fairly well-executed movie with lots of visual pizazz and a leading man with startlingly blue eyes—an underrated asset, just ask any Paul Newman movie—that I nonetheless found a little annoying. For all its brisk pace and attractive presentation, Limitless never really amounts to anything more than white guy fantasy, and a very specific type of northeastern American upper-class white guy social climber fantasy at that. On that level, Limitless is about as perfect a voicing of that fantasy as one could ask: I watched it in a theater full of young white guys, and they gave it a standing ovation at the end of the movie. Take that as you will.
Bradley Cooper (he of the dreamy blue eyes) stars as Eddie Morra, who at the movie’s start is being pursued by unseen men trying to break into his awesome high-rise apartment, while he’s ranting in voiceover about having a four-digit IQ and considering jumping off the ledge. We then have a very snazzy credit sequence that jumps all over New York City and ends up foreshadowing something that starts happening to Eddie in the middle of act two—which we’ll get to in a sec—and brings us to Eddie in an allegedly tiny and crappy Chinatown apartment that in real life would set you back a couple G’s a month. He’s a scruffy, long-haired writer who’s constantly broke, has woman trouble, drinks too much, and gets distracted too easily. Which is to say, he’s me. Well, except my eyes are a little more exotic and I actually finished my first novel. But back to the movie.
Eddie’s fiancee (Abbie Cornish) breaks up with him because she’s a grown-up and he’s not and he gets all sad because he’s entitled to a perfect life without having to work for it. So he’s wandering around feeling sorry for himself and talking the audience’s ear off in voice-over when he runs into his first wife’s brother, who used to be a drug dealer and now claims to be a pharmaceutical distributor (ah, euphemism). He gives Eddie a sample of this new stuff that’s the greatest thing since sliced Ecstasy and all manner of other drug dealer salesmanship. Looking for a pick-me-up, Eddie tries it and it turns out this stuff makes you as smart as cocaine makes you think you are. It allows him to remember literally every single thing he’s ever seen, whether conscious or unconscious. This, in turn, allows Eddie to sleep with his landlord’s wife. She’s Asian, of course, since this is white guy fantasy.
Of course, the comedown from science-fiction cocaine is such that Eddie naturally wants more. He finds, though, that some bad guy or other has beaten up the dealer, who sends Eddie out to pick up his dry cleaning and breakfast (a total coke dealer move). When Eddie obediently returns, the guy’s dead and his apartment tossed. Eddie calls the cops, but before they arrive he tries to find the science-fiction coke and hides it in his pants; the cops don’t seem to notice that he has a massive bag of pills and cash stuffed down the back of his pants, so I guess we’re not supposed to either.
From there, Eddie starts taking the drug regularly, which leads to him being able to generate wealth almost effortlessly. He makes the incredibly stupid mistake of borrowing startup capital from a Russian mobster, and then forgetting to pay the guy back promptly. While welching on his debt, Eddie generates a massive amount of wealth in a ridiculously short period of time, and ingratiates himself to powerful white men in suits, including Carl Von Loon (Robert De Niro, collecting his paycheck with an acceptable level of enthusiasm) who enlists Eddie to help with a Very Big Deal. Between the Russian mob, Robert De Niro, and the awful specter of withdrawal, Eddie has quite a lot to deal with (not to mention that even when he’s “high” he occasionally blacks out for as much as a day and can’t remember anything he did, which sometimes leads to fights), but deal he does; it’s not a spoiler to state that this is the kind of movie where consequences are for the bad guys, not the hero.
To its credit, Limitless makes no effort to be anything other than a wish-fulfillment thriller, and it’s stylishly presented by director Neil Burger and cinematographer Jo Willems on a surprisingly modest budget: it’s a 27 million dollar picture that looks better than many that cost four or five times as much. The music is disappointingly generic, considering that its trailer featured a song, Kanye West’s “Power,” that basically is Limitless in song form—everything from “I’m livin’ in the 21st century/Doin’ somethin’ mean to it/Doin’ it better than anyone you ever seen do it” to “No one man should have all that power” to the end part about jumping out the window—and yet is absent on the movie’s soundtrack. The Black Keys’ “Howlin’ For You” is used rather well, though.
Basically, if you’re able to accept Bradley Cooper as an avatar of your desire, Limitless is a fun way to spend an hour and forty-five minutes. You’ll also have to suspend disbelief for the science, as the movie hinges on the myth that we only use 20% of our brains; in the movie, the allegorical cocaine pill allows access to the other 80%. Allegory or no, the movie gets a number of details of the drug scene, and addiction, quite right, all except for the part about anything bad beyond a temporary inconvenience happening to you when you take them. Cooper has the chance to show a bit of range, which he does, though his forte remains the charismatic yuppie. It’s his world, everyone else is just there to have sex with him or give him money. As a fantasy, it’s, well…Limitless.