Limitless Is Preposterous but Enjoyable If You Turn Off Your Brain

While superhero movies dominate the box office, we take a look at a ridiculous power fantasy of another sort that deserves more recognition.

by | June 27, 2018 | Comments

(Photo by Rogue Pictures)

We live in the age of the power fantasy. Perhaps because so many of us feel powerless and vulnerable in our everyday lives, we gravitate toward stories of seemingly ordinary people who, through some twist of fate — and/or proximity to a radioactive spider — become something much greater. My three-year-old son wants to be a superhero, for example, and judging from Marvel Studios’ domination of pop culture, it sure seems like everyone else does as well.

The exquisitely preposterous 2011 film Limitless offers a different kind of power fantasy, but one every bit as seductive, if not more so. In it, an ordinary, even sub-par man acquires incredible, superhuman powers not from a meteor or by virtue of being an alien from another planet, but rather from ingesting a simple pill.

Oh sure, people on powerful stimulants like cocaine, meth, Adderall, and MDMA often feel like they’re dazzlingly clever, undeniably charming sexual powerhouses, and smarter and more capable than everyone else, but then they come down and realize that those feelings are not just illusory, but also actively dangerous.

In Limitless, however, the wonder drug NZT-48 doesn’t just make users feel like they’ve skipped a few rungs on the old evolutionary ladder; they genuinely become superhuman geniuses. It’s “better living through chemistry” taken to its extreme. As the film’s protagonist brags to someone who accuses him of having delusions of grandeur, “I do not have delusions of grandeur. I have an actual recipe for grandeur.” That recipe, needless to say, is of the pharmaceutical, pharmacological variety.

But before Edward “Eddie” Morra makes the leap from human to superhuman and then to something resembling a man-God, he’s first an unabashed schmuck with little going for him other than the fact that he looks like (an admittedly uglied-up) Bradley Cooper. Here’s the deal, though: If you’re ever named the “Sexiest Man Alive” — which People magazine dubbed Cooper the same year that Limitless came out — you do not get to play a loser everyone dismisses because he’s unimpressive or forgettable, and you especially do not get to do it while you still hold the title.

(Photo by John Baer/Rogue Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

The film does attempt to de-sexify its breathtakingly handsome leading man (those eyes! Have you ever seen a bluer blue?) by giving him a wild, unruly mane of hair, sometimes pulled into an unflattering ponytail, along with an uncomfortable-looking perpetual semi-beard and a wardrobe of shapeless jeans and sweatshirts from Salvation Army’s “Not Even Trying” collection. It doesn’t quite work, but at least they tried.

On the other hand, the filmmakers are far more successful in their attempts to make Eddie’s personality unattractive. Despite an existing book contract, Eddie spends his days staring impotently at a blank screen on his laptop and getting day-drunk in a bar, where he unsuccessfully tries to convince fellow patrons that his science fiction novel is actually a “manifesto about the plight of the individual in the twenty-first century.” Even if you do look like Bradley Cooper, talk like that and people are going to tune you out.

Limitless is an adaptation of a novel about a struggling writer who becomes a successful writer, so it’s appropriate that it opens with a flurry of literary devices faithfully translated to film. First, we begin not at the beginning, but rather in what we will learn is an alternate account of a crucial moment deep into the film’s third act. Eddie is perched on a ledge outside his insanely expensive, well-fortified apartment/sanctuary when danger threatens. Because this is an exquisitely un-serious film, this danger comes in the luridly concrete form of an unseen Russian wielding an unseen but very loud chainsaw with clear designs on Eddie’s handsome flesh.

In addition to this melodramatic tableau, we also get the wised-up narrator whispering his truths to the audience. Eddie never shuts up, and his patter never gets more subtle or sophisticated than an opening quip as he prepares to plummet to the earth from his sleek pad: “I’d come so close to having an impact on the world. Now the only thing I’d have an impact on would be the sidewalk.”

That brings us to the third literary device the filmmakers employ from the get-go: Eddie’s opening plummet is a fake-out — something he thought about in the moment, with his brain’s synapses firing wildly, but ultimately chose not to do. But we don’t learn that for another hour and a half.

(Photo by Rogue Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

The journey to get there follows Cooper’s Eddie as he faces down a looming deadline from his publisher and a recent break-up with a girlfriend who left him because he’s a nebbishy small-time nothing. Just when all seems lost, Eddie has a chance meeting with his scummy ex-brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth).

Vernon, a drug dealer by trade, takes pity on our hapless hero and gives him one pill of an experimental new smart drug called NZT-48 that he promises will change Eddie’s life, transforming him instantly from zero to hero. Eddie is desperate, so he pops that pill, and suddenly his fuzzy, booze-sodden brain becomes as powerful and as finely tuned as a Maserati engine.

Everything changes instantly for Eddie, as the world becomes one long series of green lights, invitations, and thumbs up. Where everything was once a struggle, he now coasts through a charmed life.

What Eddie does with his amazing new powers is unmistakably human: while they do help him make the professional leap from struggling writer to prolific literary genius, he otherwise exploits them to have as much indiscriminate sex with beautiful women as he can handle. Confronted by his landlord’s apoplectic daughter about late rent, for starters, he instantly intuits what her problems are and seduces her while simultaneously helping her with her schoolwork.

After he’s screwed his way through much of Manhattan and reconnected with a past love, Eddie decides to use his super genius not to cure cancer or to foster peace in the Middle East, but rather to make a crap-ton of money. His various shady business dealings eventually put him in the path of a fearsome titan of finance played by Robert De Niro, whose supporting turn here likely would have been beneath him during the golden days of the 1970s and 1980s but registers now as one of his best performances and best films of the past decade.

Limitless feels like a smart-drug variation on the classic novel Flowers for Algernon, which was made into Charly, the movie that won Cliff Robertson an Oscar for his performance as a developmentally challenged man who becomes a genius through experimental surgery. As in Flowers for Algernon and Charly, Limitless‘ Eddie backslides after becoming superhuman and worries about reverting back to his unremarkable former self. He becomes dependent upon NZT-48 and begins to experience troubling blackouts and memory glitches, not unlike those severely addicted to certain narcotics. His concern is further justified when he learns he’s not the only person to benefit from the drug’s miraculous powers, and that his fellow addicts have shared an unfortunate tendency to die or become desperately unwell.

John Baer/©Rogue Pictures

(Photo by John Baer/Rogue Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

The advantage, of course, of making a movie about a fictional drug is that it can be whatever you need it to be for any given scene. This gives Limitless the freedom to cheat a little and first portray NZT-48 as God’s gift to the common man, before it becomes the root of an affliction that threatens Eddie’s life and sanity, and then, when the narrative calls for it again, the perfect drug that just needs to be managed and controlled to be effective.

There’s ample opportunity for social commentary here on the ways success, power, intelligence, and opportunity can corrupt people as well as institutions, but Limitless instead opts for a more lurid, sensationalistic take. It’s not high art, but it is entertainingly shameless and shamelessly entertaining. This is a trashy pulp paperback of a B-movie. It’s a silly, melodramatic exploration of what it might be like to transcend the boundaries of mere mortals and become a super-intelligent sex god who looks like Bradley Cooper, who can fight as well as Bruce Lee because he watched one of his movies as a kid (an actual detail from the film), and who is a human Rosetta Stone because he can pick up any language just by listening to a few hours of it. Wish fulfillment does not get much sillier or more fun than it does here.

But let’s be clear about one thing. Limitless is full of scenes where Eddie, enhanced by NZT-48 and unused to adulation, lectures arrogantly on some matter or another to the clear-cut awe and admiration of everyone around him. He’s sheared off any last remaining vestiges of his loserdom scruff, cleaned up with a chic new haircut, and invested in some expensive suits tailor-made for the world’s sexiest and smartest man. All of this only works because Bradley Cooper is Bradley Cooper. It’s safe to assume that if this preachy know-it-all were played by someone decidedly less attractive, they would meet a very different response.

Limitless flaunts its total disconnect from anything approaching reality, beginning with its insistence on repeating the old canard about how we only use 20 percent of our brainpower. Yet it does capture some of the sweaty compulsiveness of addiction, the way it strips people of their humanity and reduces their increasingly feral existences to an animal-like hunt for the poison they need to survive. This understanding of the psychology of addiction just happens to coexist with a near-total contempt for verisimilitude. How wonderfully perverse is it that a movie about a man whose brain is operating at peak performance is best enjoyed by people who’ve shut their own brains off for 105 minutes?

Nathan Rabin is a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

Tag Cloud

Sundance TV Black Mirror mcc San Diego Comic-Con game show harry potter TIFF Lucasfilm french streaming Election The Purge Certified Fresh serial killer batman WGN australia casting Exclusive Video Biopics Rocky scary movies Cosplay PlayStation BET Awards Hulu nature cartoon worst movies Pixar Video Games franchise Bravo screenings Apple latino Marvel El Rey summer TV preview Sony Pictures Mudbound Avengers Winter TV mockumentary Marathons popular genre science fiction transformers sag awards telelvision game of thrones MGM anthology Mary poppins Sci-Fi king kong teaser CW Seed razzies South by Southwest Film Festival Masterpiece CNN marvel comics festivals AMC Discovery Channel American Society of Cinematographers NYCC Endgame green book E3 halloween tv BAFTA HFPA Opinion Martial Arts witnail gangster LGBT Reality travel Paramount Pictures Red Carpet target Alien Freeform laika supernatural documentaries rom-coms Film Festival suspense all-time finale venice Crackle Captain marvel Sundance police drama rotten Trivia Best Actor Comic-Con@Home 2021 historical drama Best and Worst Musical PaleyFest MCU reviews politics The Walt Disney Company Hallmark spy thriller USA comics Classic Film scene in color Amazon Prime Video Super Bowl Holidays war 20th Century Fox Geeked Week Prime Video PBS Spike President Ghostbusters romantic comedy Mary Tyler Moore ITV dreamworks cinemax posters zero dark thirty Sony YA broadcast Image Comics movie series Creative Arts Emmys FOX Shudder Infographic Spring TV screen actors guild Amazon Studios DirecTV tv talk sitcom Extras Nickelodeon Rom-Com live event BET Valentine's Day OneApp Hollywood Foreign Press Association dramedy cops TruTV Best Picture LGBTQ crime thriller critic resources Set visit Legendary talk show cults History high school WarnerMedia TV movies SXSW 2022 1990s HBO Go Family A&E festival RT21 Tarantino TV One sequel comedies nfl Rocketman jamie lee curtis book adaptation The Witch singing competition stand-up comedy NBA 2018 dragons period drama obi wan VOD news elevated horror streaming movies Star Trek Teen Lifetime spanish language comic book movie halloween GIFs SXSW adventure trophy Disney+ Disney Plus X-Men scorecard dogs ABC 45 what to watch Reality Competition Comedy Central golden globe awards AMC Plus SDCC Toys Elton John new zealand YouTube Red Countdown video Walt Disney Pictures Acorn TV Paramount Plus CBS All Access Epix boxoffice Fox News spanish MSNBC quibi mutant Box Office Esquire FXX Western vampires hidden camera Oscars james bond Fargo Chilling Adventures of Sabrina hist miniseries indie Mystery Turner TCA Awards The CW japan slasher fresh DGA CBS cancelled DC Comics ABC Signature canceled TV shows Emmy Nominations Mindy Kaling crime Disney Plus nbcuniversal animated Pride Month spinoff international ratings Stephen King aapi Disney streaming service Britbox Marvel Television Disney interviews DC Universe TV Land 21st Century Fox Pirates black comedy japanese kids cars Premiere Dates Marvel Studios doctor who king arthur Country Mary Poppins Returns olympics Binge Guide theme song Awards Tour rt labs Amazon 90s Fall TV Christmas sports hispanic Year in Review RT History target scene in color cats aliens sequels name the review Logo IFC Shondaland Kids & Family comic book movies Disney Channel Hear Us Out stoner disaster book docudrama Apple TV+ Tubi Warner Bros. Oscar Dark Horse Comics kaiju emmy awards discovery Best Director zombie saw parents Schedule Action action-comedy Best Actress Thanksgiving medical drama sopranos Tokyo Olympics TCA Winter 2020 Animation Paramount free movies asian-american summer preview unscripted toy story DC streaming service strong female leads Pop Starz richard e. Grant facebook archives dc Lionsgate award winner A24 classics USA Network Black History Month TCM TCA 2016 rt labs critics edition south america Funimation die hard Pop TV wonder woman TBS Star Wars Podcast Universal canceled BBC One Holiday VICE vs. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt trailers marvel cinematic universe werewolf NBC summer TV spider-man Film National Geographic Neflix CMT Ovation women 79th Golden Globes Awards crossover toronto Character Guide cancelled TV series cancelled television concert E! YouTube movies Crunchyroll pirates of the caribbean IFC Films MTV deadpool leaderboard Chernobyl Apple TV Plus streamig slashers docuseries remakes Academy Awards psychological thriller blaxploitation ghosts Indigenous mob twilight spider-verse art house lord of the rings FX composers IMDb TV Drama BBC America Tomatazos scene in color series 2020 rotten movies we love prank black TLC jurassic park directors mission: impossible Cannes Netflix fast and furious basketball royal family boxing criterion Summer new york Broadway TNT reboot Comic Book italian Sundance Now new star wars movies Native Calendar Tumblr anime SundanceTV HBO Max Heroines breaking bad 72 Emmy Awards a nightmare on elm street cooking TV scary OWN Interview 2021 spain The Arrangement Universal Pictures 93rd Oscars Ellie Kemper kong Polls and Games superman justice league Lifetime Christmas movies football Superheroes comiccon 007 Anna Paquin Focus Features 24 frames 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards romance television 2017 Fox Searchlight New York Comic Con See It Skip It children's TV superhero Television Academy Awards universal monsters VH1 FX on Hulu Trailer Paramount Network natural history child's play Rock Star Wars Celebration legend Adult Swim thriller young adult Comics on TV hollywood 4/20 GoT Spectrum Originals adaptation Quiz documentary psycho Sneak Peek Women's History Month Amazon Prime Showtime Turner Classic Movies 99% 2019 Food Network crime drama Photos 2015 monster movies rt archives social media Horror obituary hispanic heritage month technology Arrowverse critics Television Critics Association Nat Geo Vudu golden globes HBO dexter Fantasy satire debate Watching Series Song of Ice and Fire space ID 94th Oscars diversity adenture 73rd Emmy Awards Musicals Instagram Live GLAAD Travel Channel comic Pacific Islander versus YouTube Premium christmas movies First Look blockbuster scene in color film series best true crime Trophy Talk heist movie 71st Emmy Awards The Academy Superheroe stop motion Hallmark Christmas movies independent ABC Family ViacomCBS Music First Reviews based on movie foreign biography live action Writers Guild of America Syfy zombies The Walking Dead binge Tags: Comedy dceu indiana jones Netflix Christmas movies feel good godzilla Columbia Pictures APB chucky worst political drama films BBC Brie Larson revenge cancelled TV shows Nominations video on demand Wes Anderson Cartoon Network ESPN Emmys dark Pet Sematary comic books TCA 2017 biopic know your critic Comedy Grammys Winners blockbusters joker TV renewals renewed TV shows Peacock Baby Yoda robots