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In theory Limitless is a movie about what would happen if you took a pill which made you smarter, but, think about the smartest people you’ve ever known. In my experience true genius comes at the expense of things like fashion sense or charisma. When someone says the word genius, the uncombed, rumpled visage of Albert Einstein probably pops into your head. Neil Burger’s movie, though, has something else in mind. In this imagined version of intelligence, if only Albert Einstein had been smarter he’d have done something about that unruly mustache. In the world of Limitless true genius is The Fonz, wearing leather jackets, riding around on motorcycles, and getting whatever he wants out of life by simply being cooler than everyone else.
That’s what happens to Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) when he takes a mysterious, experimental drug called NZT. It’s supposed to make him smarter, and it does; but more crucially, suddenly this scruffy, struggling writer develops an affinity for custom-made suits, an obsession with cleanliness, and a talent for procuring fast sports cars which he uses to pick up beautiful women. That NZT also enables him to instantly understand and use complex math or learn any language is almost a footnote in this tale of how being smarter can make you cooler than everyone else. Think of this movie like the anti-Social Network. In that film David Fincher told the story of how genius and ambition often leaves people cut off from the world, out of step with society, and alone. If Neil Berger had made The Social Network it would have started not with Mark Zuckerberg being dumped by his girlfriend for being oblivious to her feelings, but being hit on by super models because he’s so smart he knows how to dress better than everyone around him.
So enjoying Limitless requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but maybe you knew that going in. The film’s trailers make it clear that this entire story is based on the idea that we only use 20% of our brain, a frequently circulated rumor with no more basis in scientific fact than Jurassic Park’s notion of extracting dinosaur DNA from insects encased in amber. But then, Jurassic Park’s velociraptors didn’t hatch out of their eggs sporting five-hundred dollar haircuts. Somehow that made them more believable. This is not a movie for anyone who has ever read “Flowers for Algernon”.
The thing is, Limitless really wastes its premise by mostly ignoring all the consequences of being zapped from slightly above average to four-digit IQ. The intelligence thing is a total footnote. Instead, it’s kind of a standard drug movie. Bradley Cooper’s character has them, everyone else wants them, and he has to find a way out of this predicament. He doesn’t think his way out of it exactly, actually he doesn’t bother to think about how to solve his problems much at all. Like all smart people he just sort of goes with it (sarcasm indicated). The best the smartest man in the world can come up with is to hire a few bodyguards. Professor Moriarty this guy isn’t, though he does seem to know how to fight like Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes .
Limitless spends almost no time really delving into the massively raised IQ of Bradley Cooper, however it does use his increased brainpower as an excuse to engage in a sort of kinetic, visual trickery. Burger’s movie has a real eye for bright colors and strange warping effects which do more to keep you interested in what’s happening than in anything this story has going.
Not that there’s much of a story. Far too much of the film boils down to a series of disconnected viginettes which wouldn’t actually make any sense if Bradley Cooper wasn’t there to literally narrate every single second of the movie. I’m a big fan of voiceover narration, if you’re making film noir, but this isn’t Double Indemnity, it’s a drug movie. It’s a drug movie without a well-thought out story, so it cheats by having Bradley Cooper explain everything as it goes along.
In spite of all this, somehow I didn’t hate the time I spent with Limitless. Bradley Cooper remains a fascinating leading man. He’s easy to watch, even though let’s face it, he’s pretty much just playing Bradley Cooper. A lot of the credit for how watchable this throwaway film is, probably has to go to Burger, who makes those disconnected scenes feel as though they’re filled with a raw kind of energy, very like synapses firing in a brain pepped up on smart pills. Limitless isn’t smart, but it looks smart, and maybe that’s enough to get empty enjoyment out of it. It’s like watching The Fonz get free songs by punching a jukebox, and that never stops being fun.