Sub-Cult

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

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