Big pharmaceutical companies are racing to develop drugs to give us stiffer erections and more efficiently functioning, happier, and more focused brains. And we are ingesting whatever they produce at alarming rates. So the time is perfect for Neil Burger’s flawed futuristic thriller Limitless, about a pill that will make you smarter, richer, savvier. It’s relevant wish fulfillment that turns into horror, capitalizing on the crazy twin thrill and fear of mind-altering chemicals. It’s just too bad Burger and his crew didn’t have access to drugs that would make their film smarter, savvier, better.
To begin a film like this, you need a truly stunted specimen worthy of improvement. And what’s the most pathetic form of humanity you can think of? A writer, of course! Bradley Cooper plays Eddie, a schlubby guy who can't finish his sci-fi novel and who’s just been dumped by his capable and gorgeous
wife girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish). At this very low point, he bumps into his ex-brother-in-law, Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), a shady, wealthy drug salesman who hands him a clear pill. The benefits are immediate, and Eddie’s quickly hooked. He writes the novel in four days — and it’s brilliant! Before long, he's picking up foreign languages, tinkling the ivories, brilliantly analyzing stock-market trends, mastering kung-fu (yes, there's a Matrix reference), and having enormous amounts of sex with model-beautiful women. But naturally there's a price: Vernon gets offed, Eddie steals the dead man’s stash, and soon the corrupt Big Pharma cabal behind the pills are out to get him and his ex-wife.
It’s hard to portray genius onscreen. Burger (The Illusionist) has some fun trying: Each triple somersault of Eddie’s mental gymnastics is treated with reverent detail and cool, gimmicky visuals. But for a film about a man who sees the logical structures behind everything, there sure are a lot of confusing plot twists and multiple sequences where his insights seem impractical, absurd, or plain old silly. In the most preposterous, his ex, Lindy, literally runs a hundred yards onto an ice-skating rink, yanks a little girl up off the ice, and flings the girl around, so that her ice skates cut up a homicidal dude with a gun. Because, clearly the logical move there was to endanger the life of a child on a slippery ice-skating rink.
The result is a film that plays a bit like Huey Lewis’s “I Wanna New Drug.” It’s timely and satiric — but also brutally repetitive (insight leads to danger, repeat) and poorly written. In the end, Limitless collapses because it's not stretching for anything beyond straight-up, drug-enhanced thriller with a happy ending. It's not a satire of Big Pharma or our own dependency on drugs, or even a particularly interesting portrait of a character; Eddie has no depth or center, and neither does the film. Like any a cheap high, it's a quick rush followed by a crushing sense of emptiness.