Director Neil Burger may not have much of a pedigree (he’s previously directed just three feature films including 2006’s The Illusionist) but he’s that rare breed – a director who writes and shoots his own stuff. In fact, two of his prior movies have been wholly original material.
Limitless, however, marks a change for the helmsman with an MTV background. It’s the first of his features that he hasn’t had a hand in writing, and it betrays his MTV roots.
As our hero, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), plunges deeper and deeper into a dependency on top-secret wonder drug NZT-48, Burger draws on music video-style elements to convey the drug’s effects. Graphics are used to illustrate what’s happening in Eddie’s head but they’re flashy and distracting. Other techniques prove much more effective. Where the camera propels us towards the ground from the top of a skyscraper and hurtles at breakneck speed along New York streets, it’s a massive rush – and goes some way towards replicating what Eddie presumably feels.
But wait. Let’s rewind. What is this drug exactly and what is the film about?
It opens towards the end of the story with Eddie standing at the edge of his balcony, scores of storeys up. Someone is hammering at his door – a thick, metal barricade. Is this guy about to throw himself over the edge? What has led to this turn of events?
Eddie takes us back to the beginning of the story via voiceover. He’s a blocked writer, struggling to deliver a book for which he’s received an advance. His gorgeous girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) dumps him and he’s at his lowest ebb. It’s at this point that he bumps into his former brother-in-law (Eddie was married briefly to college sweetheart Melissa, played by Anna Friel), a drug dealer who offers him a newly-developed, highly illegal pill that promises him access to 100 per cent of his brain, as opposed to the meagre 20 per cent the film tells us we actually use.
That night, he cracks out several chapters of his book and blows his publisher away. As he falls into the drug’s grip, he is drawn into an increasingly murky world where others will stop at nothing to get hold of these powerful little pills. In the meantime, he transforms himself into a financial whizz, teaming up with Robert De Niro’s formidable businessman Carl Van Loon, and makes pots of cash.
When he starts to suffer serious side effects, he uncovers some startling facts and tries to find a way to wean himself off NZT, without having to say goodbye to its mind-bending consequences. But can he do it before he comes a cropper, one way or another?
The intriguing premise of Limitless can’t fail to draw audiences in but can it hold the attention? The answer is a resounding yes. It’s entertaining stuff as long as you don’t question it too deeply (it doesn’t have responses for everything). And Bradley Cooper is charismatic eye candy. But while we identify with him, he struggles to convince as either a (blocked) writer or as a high-functioning super-brain taken seriously by De Niro’s high-powered mogul.
And it isn’t as taut as it ought to be. A film which is a mix of sci-fi, thriller and mystery relies heavily on dramatic tension to captivate its audience but Limitless suffers from Cooper’s narration. Telling the story retrospectively as it does gives the film a sense of fatalism which yanks the viewer out of the situation, removing any sense of immediacy and damaging attempts to build up tension.
Limitless is, in actual fact, limited but with such a compelling premise and an ability to entertain, it ticks a big enough box to render itself a diverting way to spend a couple of hours.