Neil Burger’s mental-enhancement flick fails to reach its full potential

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Eddie (Bradley Cooper) enjoys the effects — but also discovers the dangers — of brain enhancement drugs in Limitless.
courtesy of getty images



Directed by Neil Burger

Starring Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, 
Robert De Niro

Rated PG-13

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Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a loser whose life is falling apart. He is failing in his job as a writer, and his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) dumped him. Soon after, Eddie accidentally meets his ex-wife’s brother, Vernon Gant (Johnny Whitworth), a drug dealer who sees directly through Eddie’s miserable existence. Vernon offers Eddie a new drug, promising that it will change his life for better by temporarily increasing his intelligence. Vernon claims that humans only use 20 percent of their brain and that the drug, called NZT, would enable Eddie to reach his full potential. Eddie hesitates, but due to his desperate situation, he eventually tries NZT and is surprised to find that it, indeed, focuses his attention and increases his intelligence. He immediately cleans up his messy apartment, writes a first draft of his book, and delivers the draft to his editor, who is stunned by the work. But soon, the effect of NZT drops, and Eddie senses a return to his lowlier existence.

Eddie decides to ask Vernon for more NZT, but finds the dealer dead in his apartment, killed by someone who had been looking for the drug. Nevertheless, Eddie manages to find some hidden NZT and begins to enjoy an almost unlimited supply of it. In the following weeks, Eddie hands in his book and re-negotiates his contract. He learns new languages, studies math, and becomes an incredibly successful broker. His personality shifts from a boring loser to the inspiring man-about-town who easily makes influential friends, travels the world, and wins back his girlfriend.

But after a while, the troubles start. Eddie realizes that the drug has strong side effects that will ultimately lead to death, gangsters are in pursuit of his remaining NZT, and his new boss — powerful businessman Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro) — finds out about Eddie’s secret. Carl realizes that even while on NZT, Eddie still has a major weakness: he was never forced to compete to achieve his success. Eddie realizes that he needs to find a way to deal with all his problems now that his life and health — as well as the life of his girlfriend — are in danger.

Neil Burger’s movie is a thriller, no doubt, but given the excellent actors and the solid basic idea, the film clearly does not reach its full potential. Limitless has a hard time building tension, and when it does succeed, it often loses momentum almost immediately. One problem is that the villains who chase Eddie and his girlfriend aren’t very threatening — one is a local gangster who gave Eddie money for his start-up, and the other is a professional killer who looks like a pensioner, but apparently has the incredible superpower of stabbing people in broad daylight in Central Park without attracting any attention. To top it off, Robert De Niro fails to convincingly portray a ruthless businessman. He is no comparison to Andy García in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, Al Pacino in Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate, or Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.

The second major flaw of Limitless is a total lack of inspiration illustrating the intelligence-increasing effect of NZT. Since this plot point is the central idea of the movie, one would expect that increasing Eddie’s intelligence by a factor of five would lead him to new insights and very creative solutions to his problems. I expected similar situations to Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting or Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, but that is not the case here.

In one scene, Eddie’s girlfriend gets chased by the “pensioner” professional killer. She has a bag filled with NZT that the killer wants, and she’s hiding in a group of rocks in Central Park with the killer close by. She panics and takes NZT. All the drug does, though, is make her realize that there are many objects around her that could be used as weapons. She finally decides to run to the skating rink, where she picks up a kid and attacks the killer by swinging the little girl around to cut him with the skate’s blades. Aside from looking ridiculous, this scene disappoints a lot.

Limitless is enjoyable to watch in parts, comes with some nice visual effects, and is clearly a movie that won’t bore anyone — but it falls short of anything above average. There is a bonus, though — watching the handsome Bradley Cooper as a respite from nerdy male classmates might offer additional motivation for some to see the film.