Don’t let the stupid image above fool you. This movie is full of inventive special effects and camera work.

Limitless is a movie that should be profoundly lame and stupid, yet somehow isn’t. The premise was idiotic and I thought it would be shallow movie using bad science to veil some over-familiar narrative arc about learning the value of not cheating to get ahead. Or something like that. I’m happy to say that Limitless is surprising. It’s a well-constructed thriller where a huge part of the pleasure is seeing how enhanced Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) deals with the world when unrestrained by limitations of personality or cognitive function. It does not dwell on the ethics or the imminence of exactly this type of technology, rather giving us a more personal story that manages to remain more thoughtful than thoughtless.

Morra is a struggling writer who squanders the good turns, including a book deal and a girlfriend he loves, by being a punk. He’s a symbol for an entire generation of slackers-as-adults which I’m sure some are hoping we will become in our 30’s after the party stops and the opportunities start to dry up. I don’t necessarily agree that this is the destiny of twenty-somethings like it was for many people who are now on the far side of their thirties. Nevertheless, Eddie Morra is a familiar character and a chastisement for people like me who talk more than do. With his long hair and bad habits, not to mention the career choice, he’s also a reassurance for all the older capitalists who watched their kids go a different way. This is effective because it allows the character’s dead-beat nature to resonate for a very wide audience.

All of this turns around, though, when circumstance brings Eddie into contact with an experimental (and as it turns out) dangerous new drug that basically takes normal brain and makes it into super brain. He is suddenly motivated and together in all kinds of interesting ways. Of course, he uses his newfound togetherness for selfish gain but he seems to also have some larger goal in mind. The movie never fully gathers itself around this goal, leaving some room to wonder about it and imagine what it could be. I went really big with what I hoped it was and wound up disappointed by the amount of emphasis the movie finally does give it. Your mileage may vary.

Like I said before, the fun of the movie is watching Eddie tear through the world a bunch of steps ahead of everyone and everything. This is what makes it a power fantasy. Why does Eddie get into a fight? Or become financially successful? Or write an awesome science fiction novel? Because these are all different types of challenges or experiences people want to have and they all scratch different itches. Eddie is therefore an ubermensch who can do it all, so there is something here for everyone. Of course, the film chooses his financial ambitions as the source of conflict and a through-line for the shady shit going on in and around the drug Eddie is munching.

One of the interesting points it makes is that an enhanced person is still motivated by the same desires that they had when they were “normal”.  Selfishness, greed, etc… these are shackles that we aren’t freed by if we become smarter. The smartest people in the world are the ones responsible for the evils that plague society. From capitalist exploitation to technological fuckery, there’s plenty of proof around that intelligence doesn’t equal benevolence. Eddie is basically an all right guy, but he’s not a hero in any sense but a narrative sense (he’s the hero of our story, no more). He uses the drug to get himself ahead, and maybe he has bigger goals but we mostly see his star rise. The movie is not interested in being overly critical of Eddie Morra for the way he handles his shit. Instead, the consequences facing Eddie are not so much ethical or philosophical but based completely around the stuff he misses and, of course, the paranoia, desperation, and self-destruction of a drug-addict. That said, the movie wisely dodges going too far with the addict metaphor. Eddie does some fucked up, desperate shit, is fierce about his NZT, and so on… but this never goes so far that anyone wants him to be off it (except his girlfriend, who kinda says a few things the audience is thinking).

One particular scene I can’t believe made it into the movie involves the true lengths Eddie is forced to go, and is capable of going, when unfettered by indecision, panic, or (potentially) moral sentiment. It’s a fucked up moment that elevates the film, giving it strong horror undertones. I want to spoil it kinda, but won’t because it is a good hook for the movie (though it happens toward the end).

ALERT: SWITCHING TO SPOILER-MODE

My only real gripe with Limitless is that the ending is a bit weak. Like The Adjustment Bureau, there are parts of it that just don’t feel earned. Maybe scenes were cut for flow, but time skip ahead to find Eddie back with doubting girlfriend and still an NZT-enhancile, is a bit odd. And again, this is the only time we get an idea of Eddie’s grander intentions (they aren’t very exciting, probably exactly what you’d expect really). I wanted to see something a bit more exciting here, and had hopes for a messianic ambition to spread clean NZT to everyone and democratize the power of the technology to utterly change the world (which Eddie mentions he wants to do a few times). This is also a logical way for the film to close, given the time spent showing how NZT can create a whole new class of haves and have-nots if in the wrong hands.

SPOILER-MODE DISENGAGED.

Limitless is, in spite of its somewhat weak ending, a very fun and impressive movie. Bradley Cooper is a great candidate for the role. De Niro is fun, especially at the ending (he somewhat salvages it, actually). The real treat is the guy who plays the Russian criminal Eddie gets mixed up with. Once he gets on the NZT, he brings the whole thing up a couple of notches for a few minutes. Other than these three, there aren’t many notable characters and Abbie Cornish especially is given very little to do (though that little includes one great NZT trip).

That’s all okay, though, because this is Cooper’s movie and it makes me genuinely excited for what he can do in leading roles down the line. This is exactly the kind of movie he was born to front, and is also the kind of smart-ass character who he plays in supporting roles. I wonder if he’s a real actor but I doubt I’ll care as long as he keeps having as much fun as he is here.

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