Most drug movies glamorize the use and/or distribution of narcotics before telling the ugly truth about the addiction or jail time that follows and the shady figures that inhabit society’s underbelly. Taking characters from point A to point B and, finally, to their lowest point is a formulaic but effective storyline that shows how substance abuse destroys lives. It worked for Blow, Scarface and The Basketball Diaries, but in Limitless, director Neil Burger ignores that successful blueprint and essentially says, “Do drugs, kids! They’ll help you! And don’t worry, it’ll all work out in the end!”
Of course, a more familiar narrative precedes this self-serving, unorthodox conclusion and it could’ve worked if Burger navigated the story with more focus. The film begins when struggling novelist and all around slob Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), who has a permanent case of writer’s block, runs into his drug-peddling-ex-brother-in-law in Manhattan (what are the odds?) This slimy fellow gives him an experimental pill called NZT that clears its users mind and helps them focus. When he ingests it, his long-gestating novel is completed in a matter of hours and his grimy apartment is made-over to look like a room at the Ritz Carlton. The pace of the picture picks up quickly as Eddie climbs New York City’s social and corporate ladders, acquiring wealth, power, women and the attention of greedy entrepreneurs, ruthless gangsters and assassins who want the drug themselves.
The high-concept premise presented storytelling potential as expansive as the title suggests, but Limitless is hampered by a series of discrepancies that render it silly and disjointed. Some of the smaller ones are relatively insignificant and won’t hinder the experience, but others (such as the lethal effects of the drug which conveniently don’t apply to our protagonist) defy the internal logic that screenwriter Leslie Dixon sets up. It’s also hard to ignore how useless a handful of the sub-plots are. Abbie Cornish’s character starts out as motivation for Cooper’s, but her relevance lessens as the stakes are raised and Eddie slips further into the worlds of finance and crime. The same can be said of the Russian gangster whose arc begins when he lends Eddie some capital for an investment and ends in a pulpy bloodbath. Burger leads you to believe that these side-stories will have greater impact on the bottom line, but by the time the film wraps it becomes clear that they’ve collectively convoluted the plot.
It is, however, entirely possible that the filmmakers’ goal was to make a movie that mimics the incoherent, mind-bending state that hallucinogens induce and, in that sense, Limitless works. Burger builds on that idea by visualizing the effects of NZT with unusual camera techniques, including abrupt changes in color, editing tricks that revisit the action in reverse (sort of) and a great time/spatial elapsing effect that literally pulls the viewer through Eddie’s lengthy drug coma. The dizzying display of surreal imagery is the films greatest gimmick, designed to draw your attention away from its weaknesses.
At its core, Limitless is about excess: excess of knowledge, power, money, etc. and fittingly excess is one of its biggest problems. The filmmakers force too much upon their movie, from unnecessary fight scenes to sexual encounters with metropolitan socialites that ironically water down its potency instead of giving it more edginess. Like any drug, it starts out as something refreshing and stimulating, but when you come down you’re stuck wondering where the last few hours went.
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