There's little worse for a film critic than watching a perfectly good idea for a movie be bungled in its adaptation to the big screen. Limitless falls into this category, however, with a brilliant concept that ends up so sloppy and poorly written that it made me want to open my laptop and start writing a new script.
The story is based on Alan Glynn's novel "The Dark Fields" about a drug that rewires your brain so that instead of having access to the usual 20% of your neural capacity, you can utilize all of your brain. Every memory is eidetic, everything you've ever seen, heard, learned, touched, tasted can instantly be integrated into your experiences and, as Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) learns, you can master foreign languages in just a day or two and become an accomplished pianist in about the same time. Who wouldn't revel in a drug that offered that capability?
Problem is, to make a movie you need drama, tension, good and bad characters and it's the interplay between them that makes things interesting and engaging. In Watchmen, for example, the ultimate bad guy is the smartest man on Earth, because he's smart enough to see the inevitable progression of man and society. In Limitless, they couldn't decide whether to make it a morality play about Morra gaining abilities as "Enhanced Eddie" at the price of his humanity, or to simply let him be the protagonist overcoming a variety of increasingly ridiculous obstacles, which made for an awful confusing narrative.
The least coherent character in the film is his on-again, off-again girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) who dumps Eddie for being a do-nothing slacker at the beginning of the film, then finds him attractive once he starts taking NZT-48 (as the mystery drug is called), then dumps him when she realizes his newfound attitude is due to drugs. It's a distinctly post-modern conscience.
With a stronger director and a tighter focus on the point of the story, Limitless could have been a splendid movie. It certainly had its fair share of excitement, interesting visual effects and attractive actors and shooting locations. But it's a confection without any substance, a film without a narrative soul, and as such, ended up leaving this critic wishing for something that had a point to make and a more satisfying conclusion.
There are so many plot holes that this entire review could just list them. Eddie bumps into his former brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), who offers him the new miracle drug "that costs $800/pill", but when he finds Vernon murdered (by whom?) Eddie calls the cops, then frantically turns Vernon's luxury apartment to find his stash. Problem is, he finds one ziploc of pills that somehow spawn at least two more during the progression of the film. At $800/pill.
Then there's the ultimate in stupid storylines with Eddie realizing that his newfound cognitive abilities -- "suddenly math became useful" -- would let him invest in the stock market and earn money incredibly fast. But his $2000 isn't enough, so he goes to thuggish Slavic loan-shark Gennedy (Andrew Howard) to borrow $100K. Uhm, what? Why on Earth would Eddie do that? When he quickly turns the borrowed money into a portfolio worth $2.5million, why wouldn't he promptly withdraw $100K + interest and pay Gennedy back? Because he's needed to propel the plot and sure enough, he shoves Eddie to the ground and, upon finding a tab of NZT48, takes it and decides it's terrific and he wants more.
Eddie Morro (Bradley Cooper) and Lindy (Abbie Cornish) from Limitless
The worst misuse of an actor in a leading role, however, goes to Robert De Niro, who plays the high-powered Wall Street investment expert Carl Van Loon. Van Loon is feared by everyone because of his tough business approach. The perfect foil for genius slacker Eddie Morra? In fact, it's inexplicable why Van Loon would be interested in Morra at all, even with his newly found excellent analytic skills. In fact, at one point Van Loon has a scathing warning for Eddie in which he explains that it's time, it's experience, it's being in the trenches that makes someone a real player.
There are some very interesting visual effects demonstrated in Limitless too, notably a marvelous zoom that has the viewer flying through car windshields, down sidewalks, and between pedestrians in a dizzying sequence. There's also a marvelous visual effect when Eddie finally starts producing his much-delayed novel, with letters falling gently from the ceiling and collecting in little piles around him. A fascinating update to the iconic falling letters and symbols from The Matrix.
There's also a muddied storyline about Eddie being under surveillance from an unnamed thug (Tomas Arana), unrelated to Gennedy the loanshark and his thugs. But why? When we find out more about this unnamed man it's really incomprehensible. I can't say more without spoiling things, but it really doesn't make much sense, though the implication is clear. In the same vein, Van Loon's competitor in the world of high finance is Hank Atwood (Richard Bekins), but when we learn his backstory it, again, doesn't make sense.
There are two murders that happen during the movie: Vernon, then another during a period when Eddie doesn't remember what transpires. Both are investigated by a dogged police detective (Brian Anthony Wilson), who is suspicious about Eddie's presence and involvement in each, but that entire storyline just runs out of steam without a satisfying resolution. Having the detective obsess over Morra would have added an interesting secondary story, but he came and went in an odd and confusing manner.
Note that I haven't complained about the ludicrous central scene where Gennady and his thugs attack Morra in his $8.5million secure apartment. But if you paid $8.5mil for an apartment with steel doors and a safe room, wouldn't it also have some security at the front door and security personnel who would leap to help a tenant who had such obvious street toughs blow into town?
Limitless had a lot of potential and Bradley Cooper has an everyman charisma that made him a pleasure to see on screen. I can't say the same about Abbie Cornish, who turned in a terrible performance as Lindy. What really ruined the film, however, wasn't the acting but the endless stream of implausible plot twists and ultimately unsatisfying ending. This might be a good popcorn thriller at home, but I'd recommend you save the price of a theater ticket.