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

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