RogerBW's Blog

Limitless 27 January 2017

2011 science fiction, dir. Neil Burger, Bradley Cooper, Robert de Niro: IMDb / allmovie

Eddie Morra is a struggling writer, until his ex-brother-in-law offers him a new drug that makes him smarter.

Yes, this does rest on the tired old "you only use 20% of the brain" myth. But it wouldn't be so very different if it used one of the mechanisms proposed for real nootropics: Eddie doesn't get superpowers, he just thinks faster and with better recall. And in fact this is at last a legitimate use for the blue/orange tinting that's so prevalent in modern film: blue tint is normal Eddie, orange tint is boosted Eddie.

Other visual effects abound: the shortening of focal length to represent a wider field of vision is perhaps a little heavy-handed, and an "infinite zoom" through a series of locations doesn't really add much although it's pretty, but a ceiling that turns into a split-flap display board does usefully suggest a new way of looking at the world.

Plotting is less effective: having decided to talk about the world's most intelligent person, the script doesn't really know what to do with him. He decides that to achieve anything significant (not least a continued supply of the drug, after the ex-brother-in-law is murdered) he'll need money; fair enough. He can't get it from a bank, so he goes to a loan shark. But he says right then: he's quintupled his money four days in a row. Starting with the $800 he had, a mere three days of that would be enough to get him the $100,000 he claims to need. And once he's got the money, he apparently forgets to pay back the loan shark, something he ought to be able to do effortlessly after only a day or two of trading at most, even though he's spending all his time boosted and with perfect recall. This just doesn't work, any more than retaining a fat wad of cash and pills after being taken for questioning from a murder scene would work.

(And this isn't a Hollywood addition to bring in some action; in the novel on which this was based, The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn, it's one of the main elements of the plot. Another, which is dropped here without resolution, is whether Eddie did in fact kill the woman he dimly remembers having had sex with during a fugue state. I don't think I'm going to read the book.)

The more interesting part to me is what Eddie does with his new mind, which turns out to be "run for Senator". That's not the answer I'd come up with: more like, make enough money to buy some serious privacy, and then (being the smartest guy in the world and therefore the person with the best chance of success) work all-out at replicating the drug and dealing with the side effects. Once that's assured, start making the world a better place, both with technical solutions for things like cheap water purification and by bribing politicians with the drug (giving them a version that makes them a bit smarter than everyone else, but not as smart as me). That's a story I'd have preferred to see, about how humanity changes when it can think better, and I've thought that up in a few minutes while writing this review, not in however many months it took to write the screenplay.

Eddie never does find out where the drug originally came from, and while some other people turn out to have had access to it, their supply has dried up too. This isn't that sort of story; it's more about what sort of person one becomes when one is landed with huge powers. The trick is that almost anyone vaguely good would be a better person if they suddenly got smarter and could do more about it; why not give the drug to someone who's really smart already? What is meant to make Eddie the hero of this story is that he's a really good person already; and Bradley Cooper just about pulls it off. (And I have a low tolerance for "manchild slacker makes good" as a concept, so he has to be a pretty good actor to make that work for me.)

The only other actor with a major role is de Niro, who can of course do "vaguely sinister tycoon" in his sleep, but never really inspires. Abbie Cornish has a very small part as Eddie's girlfriend, who leaves him in the opening scene, comes back when he sorts his life out a bit, and has one really good scene when she has to take the drug herself to escape from a hit-man.

In the end: eh, well, it's OK. But it did inspire a TV series that was rather better.

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See also:
Limitless season 1

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