Quite a Pill

Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro shine in 'Limitless,' but the plot has some logic problems

What if there existed a wonder drug that could heighten your awareness of absolutely everything, unlock each memory you've ever had, and multiply your IQ exponentially? If such a drug did exist, Charlie Sheen would almost certainly snort it all up and leave nothing for the rest of us—but the notion that such a drug could be possible may not be as far-fetched as it was a couple of decades ago.

For example, a regenerative medicine researcher at Wake Forest presented at a conference this month an emerging technology that has the long-term goal of printing organs for transplant patients. Yep: printing kidneys. It's a long way off, but the 3-D advancement can already print using cells and biomaterials, much in the same way your inkjet works. Behold the future.

In Limitless, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is nowhere near the future. If anything, he's mastered living in the past. When he's dumped by his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), the reasons why are obvious to everyone but Eddie: He's completely idling, and even though he has a book contract he's obligated to fulfill, it would be hard to call Eddie a failed writer, because he's never completed anything. He's a non-writer, and for the most part, a non-factor.

Later that day, Eddie bumps into his former brother-in-law, an unreliable guy all the way around, so Eddie is skeptical when he's offered a little pill called NZT. According to the brother-in-law, it has all sorts of benefits, but no real downside. You're smarter; you're more focused; and you're better. What perfect timing, then, for a guy like Eddie.

Sensing he has nothing left to lose, Eddie pops the pill, and suddenly sees the world in a whole new way. NZT is better than its billing: He's more alert and aware, yes, but there's something else. Eddie has complete recall of everything he's ever skimmed in a book or heard on TV or radio. Every memory is readily available. And what he doesn't already know is easy to get his ever-expanding mind around.

Eddie completes his book in less than a week and turns his attention to the stock market, where he quintuples his investment every day for a week. That kind of activity catches the eye of tycoon Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), who brings the wunderkind on board at his firm to help leverage the biggest merger in corporate history—although Van Loon is justifiably suspicious of Eddie's unique powers.

While director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) leans too heavily on a dreamlike visual palette to suggest Eddie's altered state, the parable of a quick-fix culture that would welcome the ultimate panacea gains a bit of traction as Limitless rolls on. Once the downsides of the drug are made clear, the question becomes: Is all Eddie gains worth the many sacrifices?

The problem with presenting perfection is that the case had better be airtight, and in Limitless, it isn't. Although he's off NZT when he visits his brother-in-law the day after his epiphany, Eddie wouldn't need the pill to recognize that something is not copacetic, yet he winds up with about a couple of years' worth of pills. He's also wildly careless with his newfound powers—the kind of powers that should, almost by definition, eliminate or at least mitigate such carelessness. And when he needs seed money to start his investing, Eddie doesn't visit a bank or an old friend or even his publisher, now fully flushed with adoration upon reading the quickly thrown-together novel. No, Eddie goes to a Russian mobster.

There is ample conflict as it is without involving a drug underworld and the Russian mob, and to have a man with a purported four-digit IQ not thinking two steps ahead doesn't make any sense at all. In any case, if Burger needed those influences in his film, there are other ways to introduce them that don't make a super genius—even a chemically enhanced one—look like an ignoramus.

De Niro's role was enlarged from the book on which the film is based (The Dark Fields), and that was a wise move. His Van Loon is something of an ambiguous character, and De Niro does a good job of masking whatever his real intentions might be. None of that makes up for that third Fockers movie, but at least he's doing more than cashing a check here.

Cooper, as it turns out, may have those essential leading-man qualities. Here's a role that demands more of him than simply being the good-looking guy, and he handles it ably. His Eddie is not a great creation, but Cooper flips the right switches at the right times and, by and large, is believable in a mostly implausible role.

The premise is only inventive right out of the gate, but Burger augments it well with a couple of great moments featuring Cooper and De Niro down the stretch as the plot folds in on itself.

Now just imagine what this film could have been if it had taken a cycle of NZT.

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